|Monday, March 24
Updated: April 1, 1:48 PM ET
Speed more important than ever for middle linebackers
By Len Pasquarelli
On the day he was introduced as the Atlanta Falcons' first-round choice in the 1998 draft, Keith Brooking evoked the names of Dick Butkus and Jessie Tuggle and Tommy Nobis, when asked for examples of players whose styles he most attempted to emulate.
All old-school middle linebackers. All ferocious defenders whose toughness often superseded their physical talents. Three hard-nosed and grizzled run stuffers who could step up into the "A-gap" hole, square their shoulders, and deliver a blow that knocked a ball carrier back into the middle of last week.
Fast forward five years, however, and Brooking is coming off a 2002 season in which he registered 210 tackles and a two-season stretch where he totaled 377 stops. He has been to the past two Pro Bowl games. Ask any personnel director about the premier middle linebackers in the NFL, and he won't get more than two or three deep into his accounting without noting Brooking.
And, oh, yeah, there's a new $34 million contract, one that includes a $10.6 million signing bonus, to validate his star status.
So what, since 1998, has changed about Brooking that allows him to line up in the middle now instead of at the weakside post? Not much at all. What has changed dramatically is the job description for a post that he, and other defenders never before considered as middle linebacker candidates, can now play.
"When the Bengals coaches first mentioned to me that they wanted me to play in the middle, I thought they were kidding, really," said linebacker Kevin Hardy, a seven-year veteran who has mostly split his tenure between the weakside and strongside spots, but who is penciled in as the new "Mike" starter in Cincinnati. "The more they explained how they (envisioned) the position, the way it would be styled, the more excited I got. I could see why they wanted a different kind of player in there."
In fact, many teams now want a "different" kind of player in the middle, and that has been exemplified in recent seasons and reinforced this spring during the free agent signing period.
During his four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, athletic Mike Peterson always played on the weak side. Having signed with Jacksonville last week as a free agent, he will move to the middle. Philadelphia traded for the little-used Atlanta backup Mark Simoneau to take over for departed Shawn Barber at weakside linebacker. Then, when they acquired another weakside player in Nate Wayne, decided to switch Simoneau to the middle.
Last spring, at the annual NFL meetings, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden surprised Shelton Quarles by announcing the former strongside player was moving inside to the middle. Quarles played exceeding well as the Bucs won the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers last week acquired Hannibal Navies as an unrestricted free agent and, after playing on the strongside for the most part in Carolina, he has been installed as the new middle 'backer.
While the switch to a 3-4 front in 2002 means Brooking is no longer a pure middle linebacker in the strictest sense, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has designed a scheme that funnels the action to his star. Other coordinators have followed suit in what is reflective of a new age for the middle position.
"I think," acknowledged Brooking, "that the old middle linebacker mold has kind of become (obsolete). Yeah, you always want a tough guy in there. But the way the game is played now, it kind of calls for a more mobile player at the position, you know?"
It is, indeed, difficult to pinpoint precisely when the evolution at the middle linebacker position gained so much momentum. But there is no denying the metamorphosis at a position once defined more my toughness than speed.
Time was when the middle linebacker played strictly tackle to tackle and needed only about as much range as is required to move from one side of a telephone booth to the other. Typically, the middle 'backer played the first two downs of a series and then jogged to the sideline on third-and-long, as he was replaced by a "nickel" defensive back.
There still aren't many three-down middle linebackers, even with change at the position, but players like Brooking, Brian Urlacher of Chicago and Ray Lewis of Baltimore typically stay on the field for passing downs. That the versatile Urlacher had enough range to have played safety in college all but dictates he serve as a three-down defender.
Certainly the Bears star, arguably the most complete middle linebacker in the league, has hastened the evolution of the position.
"It used to be a 'hit-and'stun' position," said Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "Now you want a middle linebacker who can hit and run. If you've got (a middle linebacker) who can chase the ball to the sideline, you can do a lot of things on defense."
Said Washington Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato: "When you watch tape now, you just don't see that many (linebackers) who can come up and handle those 325-pound guards head-on, right? So defenses tend now to move the linebackers around or to play around the bigger blockers. It's a speed game, more than a control thing, now."
For sure, teams are looking for "downhill" players now for the middle spot, defenders who are drawn to the football and can roam the field.
In a league notorious for its copycat tactics, the success of the Buccaneers, and a defensive unit that is inarguably the quickest in the NFL, most teams are likely to seek out now a mobile middle linebacker. That is especially the case for teams that play a high percentage of "cover two" schemes, where the middle linebacker has to be rangy enough to run deep down the middle of the field in pass defense.
Even the Bucs' vanquished opponent in last year's championship game, the Oakland Raiders, lined up in 2002 with an untraditional middle linebacker. Napoleon Harris, the second of the club's two choices in the first round, had played outside linebacker and defensive end at Northwestern. Virtually no other team projected Harris as a middle linebacker.
Over the first half of his rookie season, Harris struggled, uncomfortable and at times unproductive while playing at a foreign position. The Raiders, who cut loose veteran run-stuffer Greg Biekert to help make room for Harris, had some concerns over the transition the rookie was being asked to make.
But in the final eight games, and in the playoffs, Harris reached a comfort zone and became more of a force. He finished with 83 tackles and, almost as notable, five sacks on inside blitzes. The inside pass rush component was one that the Raiders had been seeking as they redefined the position.
"It seems that teams now are rethinking the (middle linebacker) position," said Harris. "It used to be a pretty one-dimensional spot. You know, stop the run for two downs, come off the field on third (down). But there's no rule I know of that says your middle linebacker can't be a playmaker. And we're starting to see teams understand that now."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.