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Linebacker rules in the multiple 3-4 defense

Examining how the linebackers line up and the responsibilities in the multiple looks of Todd Orlando’s defense.

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As discussed in an earlier post, the linebacker groups in the multiple 3-4 defense are basically broken into two position groups — inside and outside linebackers. The mike and will are in the inside position group and the rush and buck are in the outside position group. In order to determine alignment and gap responsibility, a set of rules are used.

The rules for outside linebackers are the same and only change with a modifier call. The rules for inside linebackers are the same and they also only change with a modifier call. We will discuss how calls modify the responsibilities later, but first we have to establish the rules.

Inside linebacker rules

If you have a 3 technique called to your side, you line up in a 30 and have A gap responsibility.

If you have a 5 or a 7 technique called to your side, you line up in a 30 and have B gap.

That’s it. Pretty simple.

Outside linebacker rules

If there is a 3 call to your side, line up in a 6 technique with C gap responsibility.

If there is a 5 call to your side and no tight end, line up in a 90 technique and play D gap.

If there is a 5 call to your side and a tight end, line up in a 9 technique and play D gap.

If there is a 7 call to your side line up in a 90 technique and play D gap. It does not matter if a tight end is present or not.

So you can see while there is a subtle difference in a 5 or a 7 call from the outside looking in, it makes a huge difference in how the outside linebacker aligns and puts them in a position to accomplish different things against both the run and the pass, depending on offensive tendencies.

Inside linebacker reads

At the snap, the linebacker reads through the guard to the back. The guard can execute 7 different types of blocks:

Base/zone block

This is a front side block, indicating an inside running play. The traditional base block is rarely used, but a zone block is very similar to a base block. The guard will execute a block on a the lineman on or attempt to block the linebacker. If the a 3 technique is aligned to the linebacker’s side, the base block will be on the defensive tackle. The linebacker should look for grass in the A gap and fill if there is grass. If the A gap is closed, the linebacker picks up the ball carrier and flows inside shoulder to inside shoulder waiting for the ball carrier to turn up field, allowing the linebacker to get his head across the ball carriers body and execute the tackle.

If there is a 5 or 7 call to the linebacker’s side, he should attack the guard executing the block and get pad under pad, keeping his outside shoulder free. The linebacker then attempts to shed the blocker and find the football. If the ball breaks outside of the linebacker, he will push off with his inside foot and pursue the ball one step inside the ball carrier, making up the ground and getting his head across when the ball turns up field.

This is an example of a zone read play with a split 37 call. The mike must fill A gap ready to take on the centers block, The will must fight over the top of the tackle. He should make an option read, flowing quarterback to pitch (if there is a pitch man). The buck should fight over the tight end’s block and take quarterback keeping his outside shoulder free.

Reach block

On a reach block, the guard will attempt to gain width and seal a 3 technique or an inside linebacker to the inside. This type of block is a play side block and indicates an outside running play. On a reach block, the linebacker’s inside run responsibility is covered by the backside pursuit linebacker. The linebacker should gain width and keep their outside shoulder free, looking for the ball carrier.

If the linebacker has a 3 call to their side, they should expect a crack block or a lead block from an H-back/tight end coming from their outside. Because of this, the linebacker should not be overly focused on the ball carrier, and should look for potential blockers to the outside. If the linebacker sees grass to the outside, they are taught to attack the grass, looking for the ball carrier. If the ball carrier breaks to the outside, the linebacker should pursue inside-out waiting for the back to turn up field providing the opportunity for a tackle.

If a 5 or 7 is called to their side, the linebacker is likely going to be reached by the guard. The linebacker should gain width and stay outside of the guard. The linebacker looks for grass outside of the guard. If grass shows, the linebacker attacks the grass at 45 degrees to one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, then pursues ball carrier inside out to make the tackle.

Pull play side

This block is identified when a guard pulls away from the center. The block is common in G or sweep plays. You can quickly identify a pull by seeing the guard’s ear hole (although if it is a backside pull this may be a scoop block). This is my favorite block as a linebacker. It is simple. If your guard pulls play side, you look for the first green grass to your outside and press it. Once you begin to shoot the gap, you find the ball carrier and make the tackle.

Classic G with a tight 35 cover 3 call. The mike should see the play side pull and press the first grass he sees off the pulling guard’s rear. The will sees scoop and attempts to press the opposite A gap, looking for a cut back. Either player attempting to fight over their block will free up a cutback lane for the running back. the strong safety would step into the alley in this case containing the play should it bounce. The R will widen with the tight end’s outside release, making him susceptible to the G block, so the mike must be ready to fill

Pull back side

This block is identified when a guard pulls behind the center, like a power or trap block. This can be confused with a scoop block, but the initial response of the linebacker for either block is the same, so they have time to stick with the block and properly identify. Once you see the guards helmet turn, you begin to shuffle to the play side. With a pulling guard, the backside linebacker now has fill responsibility on the play side (the opposite linebacker may have an outside flow, so the backside linebacker needs to identify any inside seam and press it). The linebacker looks for any grass play side, and shoots the gap, looking for a cut back from the ball carrier. The linebacker then attempts to gain ground in order to get into the proper pursuit position, one step inside of the ball carrier.

This is a power play. The will sees a backside pull and presses the opposite A gap. Mike reads a down block and “fits in” behind the rush. If no air is present, the mike can play off the rush’s hip. If air presents itself, the mike presses the gap, preparing to take on the lead blocker at the line of scrimmage.

Down block

A down block is when the guard blocks the inside gap. This is common in power, trap, and counter plays. Because of this, the linebacker can expect a lead block from a backside guard or H-back on a down block. The with a down block, there is likely green grass showing for the linebacker. The linebacker should approach the gap, settling on their inside foot, attempting to take on any lead blocker who may present themselves, keeping the outside shoulder free. If he has to widen, it is okay as the backside pull will likely bring help from the opposite linebacker, looking to fill the cutback lane.

Veer block

This looks like a down block, but the difference is on a veer block, the guard will avoid a 3 technique, providing an option read for the quarterback. If no 3 technique is available, the tackle will avoid the 5/7. In both cases, a veer block indicates the need for the linebacker to gain width and potentially beat a tackle to the outside. We teach or 5/6/7 techniques to keep the tackle from getting to the linebacker, so the inside gap is now covered by that technique (who is going to squeeze the offensive lineman). The linebacker will gain width and take the quarterback first then widen to pitch once the pitch is complete. The 3/5/6/7 technique is taught to squeeze the football, taking the “dive” part of the veer play, forcing the quarterback to pull the ball.

This is a classic veer play. The end should press the tackle, and take the inside threat, in this case the halfback. The will fits in with the end, fighting over the top of the tackle’s block and taking the outside threat (in this case, the quarterback) to pitch, if a true pitch is present. The buck attacks the outside threat. The free safety has the pitch man. Some teams run this as an inverted veer with the inside threat being the quarterback and the outside threat being the halfback. In that case, the end would take the inside threat (quarterback) and the will and buck would take the outside thread (running back). This can also be run as an RPO. In that case, the pass option is treated as a pitch man by the free safety, who reads the slot’s release off the line of scrimmage and plays pass coverage. The buck and will still attack the outside threat and the end will still attack the inside threat.


A scoop is a backside block, in which the guard attempts to gain width and block the nose. The scoop is usually combined with a double team with the center, who will then work up to the linebacker to seal him to the inside. The linebacker needs to be ready to take on the center’s block, and hold his ground, but should not fight over the top of the block as they would on a play side block. The backside linebacker is not looking to take away a cutback lane and if he fights over the top of the center’s block, he could over pursue, opening up the cutback lane for the ball carrier. This is one situation where going underneath a block is permitted, if daylight is present. If the ball carrier attempts to cut back, he will cut right into the pursuing backside linebacker.

The problem with a scoop block is that it can look like a pull, a down, or a veer block, especially if the lineman’s footwork is sloppy. I teach that if you see the ear hole, it is a backside block (scoop or pull) and you can pursue. If you are unsure if it is a scoop or veer/down block, look for grass in your assigned gap. If you see grass, fill the void and then find the ball carrier and get a pursuit angle. You can recover from attacking a front side gap with the play away, but if you get into pursuit when the play is to your assignment, you will not be able to recover, and the offense is in for a positive play.

Pass block

This type of block indicates pass, although draw is possible. The inside backer should check for a draw by looking for “frozen” backs and get into their pass coverage responsibilities. We deal with the quarterback draw on a weekly basis depending on the opponents abilities and scouting report.

Outside linebacker reads

The outside linebackers have a much different responsibility than inside linebackers. The outside linebackers are the D gap or contain players in the defense (except for when in a 6 technique). Because of this, they do not pursue the play in the same capacity as an inside linebacker. The block keys are the same, but the outside linebackers are reading a tackle/tight end combination. If an outside linebacker reads flow away, they do not pursue automatically. They must check for a misdirection play and hold their ground. Another big difference is an outside linebacker is much more susceptible to a kick out block from a pulling lineman than an H-back or fullback.

Because of this, the linebacker should squeeze with any variation of a down/veer/scoop block and look inside for the potential kick out block. I teach a “wrong shoulder” technique to take on this block, in which the linebacker gets skinny, using their outside shoulder to dip inside of the kick out block, putting them in the running lane. Once you execute the wrong shoulder technique, you find the ball carrier and attempt to make the tackle.

If the linebacker squeezes with the inside move by the tackle/tight end and recognizes a veer block, the linebacker responsibility has quarterback responsibility and should pursue the quarterback, tackling the quarterback or forcing a pitch. The end and tackle have the dive responsibility against the option.

A backside pull by the tackle/tight end results in a backside read for the linebacker. The linebacker should attack the pulling lineman trying to knock them off of their pull, allowing the play side linebacker to be unblocked. This results in a linebacker “squeezing” the play. The linebacker should then “freeze” and look for any misdirection coming from play side. If misdirection is detected, the linebacker should attack the player crossing the formation and attempt to make a tackle or redirect the player.

Reach and zone are treated the same by the outside linebackers. If in a 6 technique the linebacker will attack the middle of the tight end’s body and try to “read” the tight end’s block. If the tight end tries to seal the linebacker, as they would in a reach or zone block, the linebacker should fight to get across the face of the tight end, to get their outside shoulder free. This widening with the tight end will likely create a gap for the inside linebacker to attack and pursue, which is a good thing because it gives the linebacker a free path to the ball carrier.

A pass block initiates a pass rush or coverage for the outside linebacker, depending on the play call. Generally the rush has a pass rush if in a 6 or 9 technique unless a blitz is called to his side. In that case, he will have to cover for a blitzing safety or linebacker, depending on the call.

A 9 technique reacts the same way as a six technique, except they attack the outside shoulder of the tight end. They will react identically to a 6 technique to any of the 7 blocks mentioned above.

A 90 technique responds the same way as a 9 technique, except the do not initiate contact with the tight end. They read the play and react based on the read, keeping the outside shoulder free against any reach or zone play to their side and wrong shouldering any attempt at a kick out block to their side. This alignment works especially well against option teams because it allows the outside linebacker to get a better read on the play and take the quarterback. In a 6 or 9 technique, the linebacker is engaging a tight end and cannot see the field in front of him to get a true read on the play. The 90 technique also allows the outside linebacker to get into pass coverage more quickly.

If there is a slot receiver and the outside linebacker is in a 90 they are taught to line up 3 yards inside the receiver and 4 yards off of the ball, preventing an inside release. This takes away the inside pass routes (which are easier throws for the quarterback and provide less reaction time for the linebacker. With a slot receiver, the outside linebackers must be aware of the run-pass option (RPO) to their side. This can be defended multiple ways, with the linebacker staying in pass coverage, or with a coverage switch on a run read. This is a game planning issue which may change week to week, depending on the opponent and their ability and tendency to run the ball with the quarterback out of this look. Defending the RPO will be discussed in another post.

Now we have defined the linebacker alignment responsibilities and reads. That’s it. The linebackers have their rules and basically 7 different reads they can get. Pretty simple, which is good, because now they just have to focus on executing their responsibilities.

Because the linebacker's have the ability to read and react to run plays putting themselves in the right position to make a play against the run, I do not like to use a blitz in run situations. If the linebacker executes his read, he will be in the right position and a blitz is counter productive. I have seen Orlando use some run blitzes, but sparingly. Mostly in run situations, he will use line stunts to confuse the offenses blocking schemes, which we will discuss in the next post.

We will then move on to how this defense works in the passing game.