Differentiating linebacker roles in the Steelers 3-4 defense

The linebacker position and the Pittsburgh Steelers have some history. Names like Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior, Joey Porter and James Harrison (and so many others) have had the distinction of playing linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers play what is referred to as a 3-4 defense. What that effectively means is that they have three down lineman (two ends and a nose tackle) and four linebackers. Two of those linebackers play inside (inside linebacker or ILB), while the other two play on the outside (outside linebacker or OLB).

Clear as mud right?

Well, there are also two different types of both inside and outside linebackers. For inside linebackers, you have the “Mike” (who plays the strong side, i.e. side with the tight end) and the “WILL” (who plays the weak side). Ryan Shazier plays the Mike, and Vince Williams (this year) will play the WILL.

The two different outside linebackers are the “Joker” (normally the primary rusher) and the “SAM” (who needs to be able to drop into coverage, blitz and play the run). James Harrison and Bud Dupree ended the year as the two outside linebackers for the Steelers. Because they both take on the roles of SAM and Joker, it’s easier to think of them as the “Right OLB” and “Left OLB”.

Trust me when I say that this is an extreme over-simplification of the positions and their responsibilities. The point here is that there are guys who are more suited to being SAM OLB’s or Joker OLB’s; just as there are guys who are better at being Mike ILB’s or WILL ILB’s.

That’s a big part of why it’s extremely difficult for the Steelers to draft linebackers. They have to fit the system. As General Manager Kevin Colbert has often said, most of what is being done is “projection”. They are flat-out guessing if the guy they draft can do the things they need them to do.

The truth is that there are not a lot of college teams that play the type of defense that prepares guys for being a Steelers linebacker, prompting Colbert to say this about this year’s linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine:

“We think there is a good group. But again, 90 percent of them are playing with their hand on the ground in college. Until we get them into the combine and put them through pass drop drills and see their personal workout on their pro day, that could maybe give us more evidence of their ability to play in the 3-4 defense.”

The keywords there are “think” and “maybe”. It’s guesswork. Sometimes it works like it has with Bud Dupree. Sometimes it doesn’t as with the newly minted Arizona Cardinal Jarvis Jones.

For this draft, there are a tremendous amount of athletic prospects who “might” fit the Steelers needs, especially at the OLB or “Edge” position. The EDGE categorization is tricky because you have guys who are listed as EDGE rushers who really are more suited to being 4-3 defensive ends, and not 3-4 outside linebackers.

Just slapping the EDGE classification on them does not make them a good fit for the Steelers. They need OLB skills and specifically 3-4 OLB skills.
The good thing is that, as Mike Mayock has said, “[Kevin Colbert] knows what a Steelers linebacker looks like. He knows what one smells like.”

I don’t want to know how he knows that second thing, but that’s okay! The point is he (Colbert) has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for.

We are going to breakdown “linebackers” in the draft over the coming days. And when I say “linebackers” I mean all linebackers, including the inside and outside varieties.

We’ll see shortly who falls into the Cream, the Crop and the Dregs of this year’s draft.

4 responses to “Differentiating linebacker roles in the Steelers 3-4 defense”

  1. Jake Marion says:

    I read elsewhere that in a 3-4, the two inside guys are BUCK (Timmons, Williams, Foote) to play the gap, and MACK (Shazier, Farrior, Spence) to mostly play in space.
    MIKE is a 4-3 MLB.
    SAM and WILL are Strong and weak side OLBs.
    Care to clarify?

    • Brian E Roach says:

      Hi Jake – The perils of web based research! I’ve found varying terms for each position – for example one article reads “There are two types of ILB’s, the Mike (for strong side) and the Will (for weak side). The Will typically is the more athletic linebacker, who can blitz, drop into coverage, play the run, and “spy” the quarterback. The Mike is typically the stronger and larger of the two linebackers, and is used almost like a Fullback on the defense. He takes on and occupies blockers for the Will, allowing the Will to flow to the ball and make tackles” But I also have found articles on the 3-4 that are exactly how you described it. I think if we ignore base terms – in the 3-4 at ILB you have a play maker and a thumper. At OLB you have a Strong side and a weak side guy. I will see if I can find something (not a blog, article or Wiki) that feels more concrete to me, and go from there.

      Check out this article at PFF – https://www.profootballfocus.com/defensive-prototypes-linebackers/ It essentially lumps the 3-4 linebackers simply as “Inside” guys, and the OLB’s as outside guys.

      Thanks for pointing out the discrepancies though.

      • Brown says:

        Why wouldn’t Shazier play the WIll and have Williams play the Mike? For some reason I always thought Shazier played the will inside linebacker since coming to the Steelers while Timmons played the Mike. When it comes to the roles/why the LB lines up where he does (example weak/strong or boundary/field) of non pass rushing OLB linebackers in the NFL has become so complex and seems to change week to week (even more so now that most teams are in almost always in nickle/dime defenses).

    • Brown says:

      Teams use all different names and you will even see the Buck term being used for an outside linebacker/DE on some 3-4 or hybrid teams. For inside linebacker you usually see the terms Mike/ Will, mike/ted (ted does most of the same things as the mack linebacker in your example), left/right (becoming extremely common in the NFL these days, and mike/jack (jack has also been used for hybrid olb/DE in other defenses).

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