Teaching a linebacker to read the play is a tactical skill that is sometimes overlooked at the youth level. Every effort must be made to ensure this game impacting skill is understood and its importance emphasized. It must become an instinctive habit. “A smell for the football”. But before this is done, basic linebacker skills must be mastered. Linebacker stance should be on the balls of his feet, well balanced and an even 2 point stance, ready to explode to the ball if a run play or drop to his zone position or assigned coverage in man coverage. Shedding blockers and footwork must also be emphasized. Above all a linebacker must be thinking and have a good sense of awareness.
In reading the play, all defensive players must first know the situation, before the ball is even snapped. Linebackers should be thinking down and distance tactics and thinking about opponent tendencies that were discussed prior. Also he must be aware of lineman stance. A lineman will generally line-up high with head up on a passing play and down low and ready to charge on a running play. Also, he must always be aware of formation, especially the backfield and QB position. Once the play starts, it is important to trust your instincts. If you hesitate, it will cost you. There is a split second difference between shedding a block, filling a hole and making a tackle or not. A linebacker must be quick, deliberate and explosive.
When teaching linebacker reads, the first objective is know who to read. When a play starts, the first key is the lineman, is he high or low and coming at you? If the lineman is low, you’re thinking run. Next, the linebacker must look through the blocking threat to the backfield and key the running back movement. As he reads the backs directional flow he must instantaneously react and position himself to attack the blocker with the correct shoulder positioning, precise balance and power to enable himself to gain the proper position to make the tackle. Reaction time cannot be stressed enough. Hesitation is defeat. He must trust his instincts. The slower the reaction time, the greater the obstacles will become. Both defending the block, and getting to the ball.
There are several drills that can be used to develop read skills. A traditional reaction drill with multiple dummies lined up in a V, with linebacker reacting to the coach’s ball direction and hitting dummies to that direction. Much better would be a games approach 7 on 7 with run or pass, 4 linemen and 3 backers versus 3 offensive linemen, a tight-end a QB, with two running backs. A fullback is good to rotate in also. Emphasis should be made to catch deficiencies in technical and tactical skills and correct them during this drill.
During this drill you will also find a great opportunity to point out what not to do as a linebacker. Watch closely to ensure he is reading the lineman and not directly at the RB or QB. Ensure they are not anticipating the snap count. That is only for D-line or blitzing. Also, watch their footwork. False steps will cause delays in reaction and ultimately take a linebacker out of the play.
Another skill that needs to be understood is, “spill or squeeze”. This is a decision to take on a blocker and either turn him inside “squeeze”, or turn the blocker outside, “spill”. The linebacker must know the defensive formation and responsibilities of his teammates as well as his own, in order to effectively execute this maneuver. All defensive players should have a thorough understanding of this concept.
One more thing about good linebacker reads. It is highly advantageous to know your opponent. This will give you an edge in understanding what they might do and give you an opportunity to make adjustments before it is too late. Remember this, a defense is only as good as it’s linebackers, and linebackers are only as good as their coaches.
THIS POST WAS SUBMITTED BY FREDRICK ORNS. FREDRICK HAS COACHED AT THE YOUTH LEVEL FOR SEVERAL YEARS AND IS NOW WORKING TOWARD A DEGREE IN SPORTS AND HEALTH SCIENCE. HE WILL SOON BEGIN HIS SEARCH FOR A COACHING POSITION AT THE HIGH SCHOOL LEVEL.