Commentary

Opportunistic linebackers bucking recent trends

Devalued somewhat in recent years, linebackers leaguewide are re-emerging as playmakers, especially when it comes to interceptions, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: October 17, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the past two weeks, New England Patriots inside linebacker Junior Seau has registered three interceptions. Considering the Hall of Fame credentials of the 18-year veteran, that might not seem like much of an accomplishment.

Unless one considers that the last time Seau recorded a pickoff was Sept. 15, 2002, and that his individual interception drought had reached 56 games before he victimized Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson in Week 5. Or that the three interceptions, a career high for the 38-year-old Seau, represent only one fewer than he totaled in his previous 90 appearances.

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"Hey, they're making a big-play guy out of me again," said Seau after his two-interception performance against the Browns, an outing in which he became the oldest linebacker in NFL history to have a multiple-interception game.

Yeah, well, get in line, Junior.

Six weeks into the 2007 season, linebackers across the league seem to have rediscovered their big-play mojo, especially when it comes to interceptions. In 89 games, linebackers have totaled 42 interceptions, which extrapolates to 121 for the season. That would be the most, given the current pace, since NFL linebackers registered 146 pickoffs in 1981.

In the league's modern era, no linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions, and that streak likely will be extended this season. Since 1980, the most interceptions by a linebacker in a single season was seven (Atlanta's Al Richardson in 1980 and the Jets' Lance Mehl in 1983).

Thomas Howard
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThomas Howard (four INTs ) is one of several linebackers who are making an impact in coverage.

But through six weeks, Oakland strongside linebacker Thomas Howard is tied with Dallas cornerback Anthony Henry for the league lead, with four interceptions. And three other linebackers, including Howard's teammate, Raiders standout middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, have three pickoffs each. Compare that a year ago when no linebacker recorded more than three picks for the entire season.

For a position that definitely had become somewhat devalued in recent years, and where the preponderance of nickel-and-dime coverage packages means that fewer linebackers are even on the field on passing downs, the early part of 2007 has represented a re-emergence of sorts. Linebackers have recorded 22.2 percent of the league's 189 interceptions, and that is the highest rate at this point of a season in at least 15 years.

The sudden interception binge by linebackers is surprising, in that the position has evolved into one where scouts are more inclined to seek out "edge" defenders who excel at moving forward, not in reverse.

The trend is toward pass-rush linebackers. Guys like San Diego star Shawne Merriman and Julian Peterson of Seattle -- who can knock down the passer, and not necessarily knock down passes -- are all the rage. And the recent increase in 3-4 defensive fronts, where the emphasis is on the hybrid-type linebackers who typically align at end on third down, means that pass coverage was becoming a lost art form at the position.

That hasn't been the case, however, in 2007.

"You've definitely got more [linebackers] getting back into the passing lanes," said Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard, who, ironically, has yet to throw an interception this season. "The windows for being able to squeeze the ball in are tightening up because of it. It's changed, and I don't know if it's just a matter of coverages or of the linebackers' being even more athletic this year."

It is probably a little of both, acknowledged some linebackers and defensive coordinators queried over the past two weeks about the interception increase. But it is also reflective of the continuing changes in offensive paradigms as well, whereby teams are throwing more to tight ends and running backs, a trend that dictates linebackers get more involved in the coverage aspects of the game.

SELECT FIVE
Five linebackers who excel in pass coverage:

• Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay: Even at 34, and with the Bucs' starting to take him off the field on passing downs once in awhile, the 13-year veteran and future Hall of Famer remains the gold standard for coverage linebackers. His 24 interceptions are second-most among active linebackers and he's had six seasons of three picks or more. He's also got a remarkable 109 passes defensed for his career.

•  Lance Briggs, Chicago: In his fifth season, he has only six career interceptions, but that number isn't indicative of his cover skills. Briggs is very fluid, gets out into the flat very quickly, and can run upfield with most backs in the league. He's a guy who's in the passing lanes a lot.

• Mike Vrabel, New England: He has 10 interceptions in 11 seasons, but gets his hands on a lot of balls, and really plays well in the flat- and hook-area zones. Not especially fast, but very aware and a terrific diagnostician.

• Cato June, Tampa Bay: An ex-college safety at Michigan, June's cover instincts and ability to still burst to the ball reflect his former position. He made the Pro Bowl in 2005 when he had five interceptions. Critics point out that he's had just four interceptions since then, but the guy can still cover, and his three pickoffs in '06 tied for the lead among linebackers.

• James Farrior, Pittsburgh: Very underrated in coverage. He played outside linebacker with the Jets his first five seasons in the league before signing with Pittsburgh and moving inside in 2002. His cover skills have been somewhat overshadowed by fact he's already tied his career best for sacks this year (four), but at 32, he still gets good depth in pass drops.

--Len Pasquarelli

Because many coordinators have tried to move away from wholesale situation substitution patterns and have attempted to devise packages that include some built-in flexibility to their base schemes, linebackers are being required to operate more in space now. Even a player like Merriman, who led the NFL in sacks in 2006, and who has 5½ sacks so far this season, has been asked to drop and cover more this year.

Another factor: the Tampa 2. Even though some traditional Cover 2 teams aren't playing as much of the shell coverage as they did in recent years, it is still a package widely utilized. The scheme mandates linebackers who can cover, even at the middle linebacker position.

"You've got to have people who can run," said Tampa Bay weakside star Derrick Brooks, the future Hall of Famer whose 24 career pickoffs rank second among active linebackers the league. "And if you can run, and have some instincts, you can cover."

Increasingly, linebackers are being asked to run upfield with backs and tight ends and cover them 15 or 20 yards into the secondary.

Although the perception in the first couple weeks of the season was that coordinators were dialing up more blitzes, the fact is there has been less outside blitzing in 2007, according to one NFC coordinator who recently checked the computer-generated analysis to which his team subscribes. Teams are increasingly attempting to generate pressure with only four- or five-man rushes, as opposed to all-out blitzes.

Said longtime Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who essentially created the zone-blitz package in the 1970s, and continues to tweak it even now: "You can pretty much only play it two ways. Either rush seven or drop seven. And if you can get the same results in terms of pressure by rushing four, then you drop seven and play coverage."

That said, there is still some validity to the feeling that teams are seeking more athletic linebackers at every position. There was a time when the best athletes primarily played at the weakside linebacker spot. But that isn't the case anymore, as players like Seattle's Peterson and Howard of Oakland characteristically align on the strong side. The emphasis among scouts, who went onto college campuses seeking undersized defensive ends their teams could convert into weakside 'backers, especially on 3-4 teams, has changed a bit. Now, it seems, personnel people are looking for instinctive linebackers who also happen to be excellent athletes.

That is true even at the middle or inside linebacker positions.

No team can be successful in the Tampa 2 scheme, for instance, without a middle linebacker who can turn and run down the middle of the field for 20 yards. And the league is seeing a lot more of those players. And a lot more middle linebackers who are staying on the field in third-down situations.

"It's a challenge, being able to cover on third down," said Green Bay middle linebacker Nick Barnett, who has two interceptions. "But more guys are doing it now."

At the same time, even in a season in which interceptions have increased so dramatically, linebackers still are generating their share of sacks.

Linebackers have accounted for 28.6 percent of the sacks in the league through six weeks, and there are a dozen linebackers with three or more quarterback knockdowns. That players such as Peterson, Merriman, Shaun Phillips of San Diego and DeMarcus Ware of Dallas are among the NFL leaders in sacks is not surprising. What has been notable to this point is that middle and inside linebackers have made such a dent in the sack category.

More coordinators are overloading the inside rush gaps in 2007, it seems, pressuring the pocket from the interior, and the results have been obvious.

Pittsburgh inside linebacker James Farrior, who has never had more than four sacks in a season, already has equaled his career best in five games. Chicago's Brian Urlacher, who came into the season having gone 26 games without a sack, has three in six games.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.