Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Football 201: Mike, Will, Sam

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (98) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (93) during the first half of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins NFL football game at FedEx Field in Landover, MD,  on Dec 28, 2014.  (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (98) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (93) during the first half of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins NFL football game at FedEx Field in Landover, MD, on Dec 28, 2014. (Michael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)
Football 201 is our periodic series where we attempt to assist in improving the overall football comprehension level of any and all who wish to do so. I don't profess to know all of the answers, but I love this sport enough to work tirelessly to get you the best answer I can find.  "Questions you always wanted answered, but were afraid to ask" can be addressed here.  Send them in and I will get them in time.  
This week's Football 201 starts with one of the most-asked questions that I get.  Many of you have asked for the simple descriptions of the different linebacker spots in the 4-3.
You hear the media always designating linebackers as Sam, Mike, and Will types, but seldom do they take the time to explain them in a way that will hopefully make sense.  Here is Mark's tweet from last week on this very topic:
Screen_Shot_2015-05-19_at_9_50_08_PMWell, first, let's start with the proper terms.  Sam is what we call the strong-side LB.  Mike is the middle LB and Will is the Weakside LB.  Coaches want 1-syllable terms for each guy  because each syllable takes time to say and in the heat of a NFL game, they don't have lots of time to throw around.  So, to quickly say what they have to say, they want just about every term and concept imaginable whittled down to 1-syllable.  Therefore, Sam, Will, and Mike.
Sam is the strong-side LB.  Now, this used to be very easy to figure out, because teams used to play in 21 personnel all the time.  So much so that they called it "regular" personnel.  The Cowboys in the early 1990's played 70% of their snaps in 21 personnel which is a RB, FB, TE, and 2 WRs.  We all grew up with 21 personnel in the "good ol days" so it wasn't hard to figure out what side was the strong-side.  Simply find the TE.  Whichever side had the TE had 1 more blocker than the other side did.  So, that was the strong side.  The weak-side (not to get too simple) was the other side.  The one without the TE - therefore generally just a guard and tackle and WR on that side of the field.  Now, with personnel groupings being so varied, you generally put the Sam on the side with the more targets - even if they are often WRs.  But the thing to know here is that as football evolves, we are seeing less and less differences between the 3 LB spots.  To be valuable, a LB needs to offer interchangeable traits and most do.  In fact, the Cowboys are definitely trying to assemble a core of guys who can play 2 or even all 3 of the spots.
Now, let's get something clear here right away.  These defenses are complex.  So, for me to tell you what their assignments are in general is actually only likely true.  But, there are enough variations that in a given play the assignments will vary.  So, this is in very general terms of what they do most of the time.
A SAM LB is going to lineup on the strong side and he will be the LB who is likely capable of standing up against blocks the best.  Run defense is very important for him, but he might also need to run with a TE in man-coverage or to handle himself in zones underneath.  He needs to be athletic, for sure, but of the 3 he is valued 3rd overall in the personnel department.  Jerry Jones even recently said that the Cowboys consider the SAM as the place LBs end up if they cannot cut it at Will or Mike.  On a normal play, he is attempting to funnel plays back inside and not let runs turn the corner on him.  He gets his keys from the QB and RB - but generally, he needs to be sitting on the RB.  The SAM is generally the guy who comes off the field when a team goes to nickel.  Therefore he plays the least of the 3 and that explains his reduced value.
A MIKE LB is, of course, famous for being the QB of the defense.  He handles the calls, he is the guy who is making sure everyone is carrying out their proper alignments and responsibilities and he is the "coach on the field".  Beyond that, he has to do a number of things and it likely changes by the play.  He certainly needs to run the defense, but he also needs to run.  He might need to get the deep middle of a Tampa 2 zone, he might need to "spy" an athletic QB, he might need to blitz, he might need to get his under zone, he might need to blow up a run play, and he certainly needs to be at the top of your tackle stat.  He needs to be willing to take on a lead blocker and often give himself up to make a stop through a team-mate.  He better be willing to give and take hits and play as physically as anyone on the team.  It is a very difficult position that takes a physical toll and combines physicality with the ability to move sideline-to-sideline.  It is very demanding and you better have two.  Rolando McClain is really close to the proper prototype for this position when he is healthy and fit.
A WILL LB is the premium spot of the 3, so this is the one that the personnel department will target high on the list.  If the SAM is the strongest, the WILL is the fastest.  He is the guy who is dealing with Darren Sproles in space and better be able to run with the quickest RBs.  He also, since he is on the weak-side, is theoretically called upon to run plays down from behind the most often.  On the other hand, he is not dealing with as many direct blocks (in fact, in many scenarios, he might not even be accounted for by the offense) so he must chase down plays and make stops with great effectiveness.  He must be a play-maker and basically hit like a LB but run like a Safety.  Derrick Brooks is forever the prototype, but in the modern days, I think Lance Briggs was pretty fantastic at this spot in Chicago.  This year the Cowboys want Sean Lee to be this guy.
So, here we go with last season - week 2 - Cowboys at Titans.  #59 is Anthony Hitchens, #55 is Rolando McClain, and #54 is Bruce Carter.  In this particular game, Carter was the Will, McClain was the Mike, and Hitchens was the Sam.
So, you can see the TE is on the left for the Titans, so there is the SAM, Hitchens.  Then, McClain is right over the center, and Carter the Will is lined up "TAN" which is head-up over the right tackle.  This is the 4-3 Over alignment for the Cowboys, which means that the 3-tech is on the strong side.  We can do "Over and Under" fronts on a future entry, but basically the fronts tell the 3-tech DT which side is his spot to take the B-Gap (we can also do the gaps in a future entry).
As you look above, just know Hitchens is preparing for a strong-side run where he has to get outside the play and anticipate the TE is looking for him.  The Cowboys have their SDE 2-gapping that TE to allow Hitchens to get to the flank before the RB would.  Carter on the other side is anticipating the RB on his side to perhaps try his wheels out in space to the weak side.
Below, from the playbook of Monte Kiffin, you can actually see the basics of the 4-3 Over, including responsibilities and keys.  Keys refer to how they see the play.  For instance, at the snap, the closed end (SDE) is basing his role on the play on what the TE does.
This is only the basics.  There are several stunts and games that the DE can do from this look that change things each time.  But, that would be Football 401.

Hopefully, this answered questions, but it likely created more.  As we go, I will try to make these simple enough for people to follow along, but deep enough for football fans to enjoy.  As Jason Garrett might say, Football 201 is going to be a process.
Leave questions, comments, or whatever below and we will do this again soon.

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