Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL Going to Faster, Smaller Linebackers

John Clayton believes the popularity of Tony Dungy’s “Cover 2″ defense is fueling a trend toward smaller, faster linebackers.

An interesting evolution is happening at the outside linebacker position.

Thirteen of the 25 teams playing 4-3 defenses made moves to acquire weakside linebackers this offseason. Much of the change relates to the popularity of Tony Dungy’s Cover 2 defense, which asks for more speed and playmaking ability from defenders. The entire NFC North, which features three new head coaches, is going to the Cover 2 to keep up with Bears coach Lovie Smith, a Dungy disciple while an assistant at Tampa Bay.


“The Tampa 2 enables a team to play with seven defenders in the box and be able to play coverage,” Reese said. “It becomes demanding because the linebackers have to have speed to help with the coverage. When you hear people talking about needing more speed on defense, they start at linebacker, and that usually means the weakside linebacker position.”

Dungy’s defense is revolutionizing the league because it’s allowing coaches to use personnel in a variety of ways. A big college safety can put on a few pounds and be a weakside linebacker. The Colts won 14 games last season with a 5-11, 235-pound middle linebacker, Gary Brackett.

And the evolution isn’t stopping at linebacker. Weakside linebacker bodies are taking over the strongside position. Those 6-4, 255-pound strongside linebackers are getting a try at defensive end if they have the quickness to get to the quarterback. Dungy is taking some 265- to 275-pound defensive ends and putting them at tackle to take advantage of their quickness. Dungy, like Bill Belichick and others, has turned cornerbacks into safeties and switched them back when necessary.

NFL defenses are geared more toward speed, and the pace is quickening. When in doubt, teams will draft a quick defender ahead of an offensive skill player because speedy defenders are harder to find as the draft proceeds. Still, the weakside linebacker position is the gateway to beginning the process of overhauling a slow defense.

If that weakside linebacker is slow, he better move to the strong side. And if he’s still too slow at strongside linebacker, he better move off the field.


Whether it’s weak side or strong side, the evolution at linebacker has everything to do with speed, and in reality those positions are becoming interchangeable. It won’t be long before moving to the strong side will be considered a sign that a player is losing a step because of the extra speed required on the weak side. But, eventually, offenses will adjust to the increasing speed and smaller defensive bodies running around.

“Eventually, teams will line up in two-tight-end sets and pound the ball with the running game,” Reese said.

Until then, enjoy the speed.

Interestingly, the Cowboys are making that move on offense while going in the opposite direction on defense, going for behemoth linebackers and letting guys like Dexter Coakley go elsewhere. It’s also amusing that Dungy gets the credit for the move to fast linebackers, since Jimmy Johnson built a championship dynasty in the early 1990s around that idea.

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