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MHR Primer Looks at Sam, Mike, Will and DJ

     How many of us, in our early days of watching football,  have watched an astute quarterback line up under center, then raise up to point towards one of the linebackers and start calling for his blockers to be alert to the movement of Sam? Or Mike? Or Will? Or Then wonder who the heck is Sam? There's nobody on the defense named Sam. Or Will. Or Mike.

     As we learned the game, we came to understand that Sam, Mike, and Will were designations given to the linebackers on the field. We quickly recalled the names of our favorite Broncos linebackers from over the years: Tom Jackson (1973-86), Randy Gradishar (1974-83), Rick Dennison (1982-90), Karl Mecklenburg (1983-94), Simon Fletcher (1985-95), John Mobley (1996-03), Bill Romanowski (1996-01), Ian Gold (2000-03, 2005-07), Al Wilson (1999-06), DJ Williams (2004-Present).

So what are some of the differences between these linebacking positions? Take a jump and find out.

A Quick Reminder About Strong Side vs Weak Side

     I think it's important to start out any discussion of the linebacking positions by reminding ourselves what the terms "strong side" and "weak side" mean, since Sam, Mike, and Will are all in reference to those two terms. Simply put, the strong side in a one tight end set is the side of the offensive line on which the tight end lines up before the snap. The weak side is the opposite of the offensive line. Thus if the tight end lines up next to the right tackle, the right side of the offensive line is the strong side, the left side is the weak side. In a formation that does not have a tight end, or has more than one tight end, the strong side is the side with the most offensive players on, or near the line of scrimmage.

Linebackers in General

     As the game of football has evolved to include the use of the forward pass, defenses developed the role of linebackers. These are players who are quick, agile, able to move from sideline to sideline, shed blockers, rush the quarterback, and cover receivers. They need to be good tacklers, strong, nimble and be great hitters. They must be smart and not only know their own assignments but also the responsibilities of the entire defense. Typically, linebackers begin a play in an upright, two-point stance, three to five yards off the line of scrimmage. There are two basic types of linebackers: Inside (Mike) and Outside (Sam and Will).

Inside Linebacker -- Mike

     According to many sources, the concept of a middle linebacker was introduced by the Chicago Bears in the early 1950s. This player is usually seen as being the quarterback of the defense. He is the one responsible for letting the rest of the defense know what play the coaches have called. He is also the one responsibility for calling out defensive audibles as he reads the offense. The Mike is considered to be a pivotal point for the defense. Most teams want a player who is a jack-of-all-trades. The Mike is often the team's leader in tackles.

Mike: Characteristics
     Teams look for a player who is big, strong and able to be a physical tackler on play after play. They want a player who likes to hit hard and can drop the best running backs in the league. They look for a player who can also drop back into pass coverage. Overall athleticism is stressed.

Mike: Primary Responsibilities
In General: He watches the offensive players then keys on the offensive linemen. His eyes on the running back will give him the play direction, the offensive linemen will let him know wether it is a run or a pass -- if the linemen stay low and block hard, he will read the play as a run. If the linemen rise quickly into an upright stance, he will read the play as a pass. Typically, he lines up three to five yards deep directly across from the center.

On Runs: He is the key run stopper and is typically in on nearly every tackle. He may take on a lead block to force the runner back towards the other defenders. He is usually assigned to fill the inside gaps -- that is, to act as a "gap destroyer" to disrupt the running play.

On Passes: He will drop into  a specific role based on the coverage that is called. He may be asked to blitz the quarterback. In a coverage like the Tampa 2, he may be asked to drop back to cover the deep middle of the field.

Mike: D. J. Williams
     In 2007, Mike Shanahan decided changes needed to be made to the Broncos' defense. Two important moves were made: the firing of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and the moving of Williams to the Mike position. Williams started sixteen games. He recorded one sack. He had no interceptions and defensed five passes. He forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles. He finished the season with 106 tackles and 35 assists.

Outside Linebacker -- Sam

     The Sam linebacker lines up opposite the strong side of the offensive formation, usually between five and eight yards off the line of scrimmage depending on the defense that has been called. Sam is normally found lined up over the tight end. If there is not a tight end in the formation, the Sam will typically line up between the last player on the offensive line and the inside slot receiver.

Sam: Characteristics
     He is usually the strongest of the linebackers, given that he has to be able to withstand blocks from the tight end, shed those blocks and then make a play. The Sam is a versatile player who can both defend against the run and drop into coverage on passing plays. Many coaches see versatility and speed as being the Sam's critical traits.

Sam: Primary Responsibilities

In General: The Sam keys on the tight end. If the tight end stays low and blocks hard, the Sam will read the play as a run. If the tight end looks like he's trying to shed the block of the defensive end and gain separation from the line of scrimmage, the Sam will read the play as a pass.

On Runs: The Sam is tasked with taking on the running back coming to the strong side of the formation. It is his responsibility to make sure the running back is not able to get around the end of the line of scrimmage. The Sam will fill his gap on the run and make the tackle if the play comes to him. If the play flows to the weak side, the Sam is usually assigned to guard a cutback "A" gap to guard against the running back cutting the play back to the inside.

On Passes: If the defense has called man-to-man coverage, the Sam will be assigned to cover either the tight end or the number two or three receiver. If a zone coverage has been called, the Sam is responsible for a short zone, typically keying on a running back coming out of the backfield, or covering a deep hook or curl zone. When dropping back into a zone coverage, the Sam must keep his eyes on the quarterback in order to move on the ball the moment it is thrown.

Sam: D. J. Williams
     After playing predominantly a Will position for his first two years, Williams was moved to the Sam position for the 2006 season. As a Sam, he started fifteen out of sixteen games, He recorded 1 sack, no interceptions, and defensed 2 passes. He forced one fumble. He finished the season with 59 tackles and 17 assists. He struggled to contain tight ends and was considered by many to have had very little impact in any of the games.

Outside Linebacker -- Will

     The Will linebacker lines up on the weak side of the offensive formation. His first focus is on stoppping the run, but he must also be agile enough to drop into pass coverage. He will usually line up five to six yards off the line of scrimmage and position himself in the B gap on the weak side of the offense.

Will: Characteristics
     The Will linebacker is usually the fastest of the three linebackers due to the fact that he is often chasing the play from behind. Coaches look for an ability to move cleanly through the traffic created by the offensive blockers. The Will is also expected to be agile and quick. He has to be able to move very well in a lateral direction and cross a great deal of the field. He is often the most athletic of the three. He is expected to be smart enough to read plays quickly and determine where to position himself. He must also be able to handle an occasional one-on-one pass coverage situation.

Will: Primary Responsibilities
In General: The Will takes his key from the offensive linemen, and keeps himself in a good position to stop a run if it comes to his side, but is also alert to the need to drop into coverage or pick up a running back coming out of the backfield on a passing play. He usually does not take on offensive linemen directly.

On Runs: His first task is to force the running back to the inside of the formation, as well was guarding against any cutback or reverse plays. If he reads a run aimed at his side of the defense, the Will moves to take on the lead blocker to force the run back to the inside. If the run moves away from him, his job is to seal up the backside of the play to prevent a cutback or reverse of direction.

On Passes: If there is a slot receiver on his side, he will move more to the outside of the line so that he can cover the slot receiver is the play is a pass. If man-to-man coverage has been called, the Will usually picks up the running back coming out of the backfield. If zone coverage has been called, he is usually responsible for the flat, hook and curl areas of the zone.

Will: D. J. Williams
     Williams was drafted in 2004 and brought on board to be a Will linebacker. He played in this position during his first two years, but shared snaps with Ian Gold in 2005. Williams was often taken out on 3rd down situations in favor of Gold. He also suffered from poor communication with Larry Coyer who later admitted that he did not adequately game plan for Williams' presence. After being moved to the Mike and Sam positions, Williams returned to the Will position in 2008. During these three years as a Will, Williams started thirty-nine out of forty-eight games. He recorded 4.5 sacks, had one interception and defensed twelve passes. He forced three fumbles and recovered a fumble. He registered 190 tackles and 74 assists.

An Aside About 3-4 Defenses

     As the name implies, the 3-4 defense uses four linebackers. In the 3-4, the Will linebacker typically plays as an inside linebacker on the weak side of the offensive formation. The fourth linebacker is set to the outside of the Will and is often known as the "Jack" linebacker. The Jack linebacker is typically more responsible for pass rushing then run defense or pass coverage. The Jack is often a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.

     When Denver moved to the 3-4 defense under Mike Nolan, D. J. Williams took on the Will role in that defense. He started thirty-one out of thirty-two games, recorded nine sacks, no interceptions and sixteen passes defensed. He forced three fumbles and recovered three fumbles. He logged 193 tackles and 47 assists. This marked the first time in Williams career that he was allowed to play two consecutive seasons at the same position as primary player at that position. He showed improvement from 2009 to 2010.

The Return to a 4-3 Defense

     Hopefully with the return to a 4-3 defense under John Fox and Dennis Allen, Williams will be allowed to remain at the Will position for which he was originally drafted. As Jeremy Bollander once said:

"DJ was a WLB, and until he played WLB, he could never be the player we drafted him to be."

It will be interesting to see who Fox and Allen tap to play the Sam and Mike positions alongside Williams.