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Narduzzi's Defense: The Linebackers, pt. 1

In the first breakdown Pat Narduzzi's defense, special contributor Josh Hammack analyzed the way the defensive linemen play in the scheme. Today, the focus moves to the second level for a look at the linebackers.


We previously looked at Pitt’s defense from the interior and focused on the defensive line to gain an understanding on how they are utilized under Pat Narduzzi. The next focus is on the linebackers and how they fit together in the defense.

We’ve already discussed the defensive line and how they fit, but what are the responsibilities of the 3 linebackers? Before we get into what their job entails, we first need to understand how they align.

Base Alignment:

At Michigan State, Mike Tressel emphasizes the point of being perfect in alignment for the linebackers. A step in the wrong direction and the job of a linebacker becomes much more difficult.

The base alignment for the middle linebacker (Mike) is a 10 technique. What’s a 10 technique? The alignments for linebackers are similar to the alignments for the defensive line, however coaches attach a zero to label it for the linebacker. So a 1 technique Nose Tackle and a 10 technique linebacker are both shaded on the center. Here’s an example from last years trip to Oklahoma State demonstrating a 10 technique.

The base alignment for the outside linebackers (“Money” on the boundary or short side of the formation and “Star” on the field or wide side) is a 50 technique. That alignment represents the outside shade of the tackle. Below is another example from the Oklahoma State game this time demonstrating a 50 technique.

While the linebackers have a base alignment, things can change based on formation. One of the biggest examples of a change is when a defense is facing a 3x1 formation, most commonly referred to a trips alignment. When that happens, the defense has to adjust to avoid being outflanked by the offense.

To counter offensive formations whether those formations are 3x1 sets or 2x2 spread sets, the linebackers have to adjust. The linebackers have a base rule to align them when they are given different formations. The base rule for the OLB’s (Money and Star) is if there is an apex between the OT and the #2 receiver, you apex.

What does that mean? Here’s an example.

As you can see from the image above, the STAR linebacker is splitting the offensive tackle and the No. 2 WR.

The adjustments continue when facing those trips formations, and one of those adjustments is for a 3-removed set. A 3-removed set is when all three receivers are detached from the line of scrimmage. What this does for the defense is allows the Field Linebacker (Star) to maintain inside leverage on the No. 2 receiver and moves the Mike linebacker and boundary linebacker (Money - $) in. Below is an example of how the defense would adjust to a 3-removed offensive set.

Linebacker Thought Process

Now that we’ve established how the linebackers align and to what formations they make adjustments, the next question is, what is the thought process or processes the coaches are trying to teach each linebacker? The answer, from coach Mike Tressel (LB Coach – Co-DC at Michigan State), who coached with Pat Narduzzi at Michigan State:

1. Know the situation
2. Get aligned and make your calls
3. Identify your key and pass responsibility
4. Stop thinking and play fast

Knowing the situation is something that Tressel puts a lot of emphasis on. For example, it’s imperative to know the down and distance, what teams like from certain formations and alignments and what their plan of attack is for certain parts of the field. A lot of that information is provided via film study, but also at practice when these linebackers are taking a ton of reps.

Once you know the situation, getting aligned and making sure the other defenders are aligned correctly becomes the next coaching point. While we already discussed the base alignments above, it’s very important to understand where you, as a linebacker, fit in to the entire defense. To do that, you have to understand where the players in front and behind you are aligned to be the most successful.

The last two points from Tressel are identifying your key and understanding your pass responsibility, and once you’ve accomplished those three things, stop thinking about everything else and play fast.

In the next installment of this series, we'll look more closely at the linebackers' roles and responsibilities.