Typically, the defensive unit of a football team has two main types of linebackers: inside, also known as middle, and outside. Most defensive units have two outside linebackers, designated as strong side and weak side, who are responsible for containing the outside areas of the opponent’s offensive formations. The outside linebackers’ specific responsibilities depend largely on the game situation and the opponent’s offensive formation. The inside linebacker is responsible for defending against running plays in the middle of the field.
Strong Side Linebacker
The outside linebacker designated as the strong side linebacker lines up on the side of the field that the offensive unit’s tight end lines up on or on the side that has the most offensive players. When a tight end is present, the strong side linebacker usually lines up directly across from him. Typically, the strong side linebacker is the strongest of the three linebackers and is expected to pursue the ball carrier, which often follows a tight end’s block, by shedding off blockers. When the tight end is used as a receiving option for the offensive unit, the strong side linebacker is responsible for providing man-to-man pass coverage.
Weak Side Linebacker
Of the three types of linebackers, the weak side linebacker usually is the fastest. His speed is called upon to provide pass coverage on short pass plays that do not involve the tight end and for pursing ball carriers from a longer distance than the other two linebackers. The weak side linebacker lines up on the side of the field that has the fewest offensive players, pursues the ball carrier from the backside of the play and must be able to effectively maneuver through traffic.
Two of the most commonly used defensive formations include the 4-3 and 3-4. In a 4-3 defensive formation, which includes four down linemen and three linebackers, the outside linebackers are expected to defend against passes and runs to their side of the field. In man-to-man 4-3 situations, the outside linebackers cover zones close to the middle of the field, providing defense against both running and passing plays. In man-to-man coverage, the strong side linebacker typically covers the tight end while the weak side linebacker covers the first player to come out of the offensive backfield, usually a running back.
Three down linemen and four linebackers, two inside and two outside, make up a 3-4 defensive formation. In this type of formation, defensive units typically use defensive ends at the outside linebacker positions in an attempt to defend against running plays more effectively. From this formation, one of the outside linebackers acts as a defensive lineman by rushing the quarterback. This makes the 3-4 formation an effective way to keep the offense guessing about which players will be rushing and which will be defending against the pass and run.