With all of the talk about filling the middle linebacker role (MIKE), recently vacated by the injured Sean Lee, the most important linebacker spot has largely been neglected in conversation: Weak-side linebacker
Of course the MIKE is still important. We’ve discussed the importance of the MIKE at great length. The MIKE has to be so quick-thinking that he can direct his defense and act himself without any hesitation. The Cowboys’ defense relies on instant action and speed to the ball. In order for it to succeed, every player must play with complete certainty. That is why the MIKE is so important.
But the true playmaker on this defense is the WILL. Whether you’re looking at Monte Kiffin’s defense from last year or Rod Marinelli’s defense this year, one thing remains constant; the weak-side linebacker (WILL) is the most important linebacker on the team.
The WILL is required to have top-notch lateral speed whether he is pursuing the ball carrier or covering a back out of the backfield. In Marinelli’s defense the WILL is in position to collect the most tackles on the team. He’s not usually blocked to the same extent as the SAM LB is and operates in freer space.
Sean Lee and Brian Urlacher (both MIKEs in Marinelli’s defense) were largely exceptions to this rule. Their natural playmaking skills sometimes overshadowed their WILL counterpart. But make no mistake, The WILL is in the best position to make plays.
Even from a coverage perspective, the WILL’s zone is the optimal playmaking spot on the field. In the traditional Tampa 2 cover scheme the MIKE drops back to cover the deep middle. This is a very difficult task and even is executed properly, the advantage still belongs to the offense. The WILL sits in the shadows ready to make a play within quick-read territory.
In other words, A QB has a longer drop back and more time to read the defense when attacking the MIKE. But when a QB attacks the zone typically covered by the WILL, he is often making a quicker read, shorter drop-back, quicker action, and into more traffic.
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As with all coverages, deception is key. The WILL must be able to cover man-to-man as well as zone. If the Cowboys always play a straight and traditional Tampa 2 every play, then a QB will always know where each defender will be and exactly how to beat them. But mixing coverages will keep the QB guessing and best position the WILL for plays.
This was an area where the Cowboys (most notably Bruce Carter) struggled greatly with last season. Whether covering a slanting TE or receiver, or covering a pass-catching runningback, Carter always seemed a step behind (or more).
The entire Marinelli defense relies on smart players making correct reads and acting without hesitation. Speed is key. Only the slightest bit of hesitation is needed to result in a blown play. Marinelli’s defense is designed to make the opposing offense work its way down the field through flawless execution.
The defense just waits for the offense to get greedy or make a mistake.
Every player in the back 7 must properly execute his coverage assignments. For the linebackers this means the SAM must get up on the TE across from him, The MIKE must be fluid in his dropback and aware of his mammoth zone responsibility, and the WILL must make the plays when they come to him.
If the Cowboys can find a WILL on this roster, (currently Bruce Carter) they could be well on their way to rebuilding this defense. Without a playmaking WILL, they may be in for another long season.
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