Over the years, linebackers have come in different shapes, speeds and sizes.
With the advent of more passing formation, there is a trend toward smaller and faster players for what’s generally considered the heartbeat of any top-flight defense.
“There’s been some really good ones through the years that play zone like a player like Derrick Brooks, who’s a Hall of Famer,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That kind of speed and break, they said he was too small, but when he was featured in that (cover-2 zone) system he came to life in the biggest way.”
Brooks, who was listed at 6-foot and 230 pounds, patrolled the position for Tampa Bay for 15 seasons (1995-2008) and was a Pro Bowler 10 times and All-Pro five times. The second draft pick ever made by Falcons president Rich McKay, who was Tampa Bay’s general manager then, helped the Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003.
“There are some players who are still big, Brian Urlacher was a great player,” Quinn said of the former Chicago Bear who was a safety in college at 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds. “He was big as heck, and he had such length to him, and because of that length he could cover because of it.”
The linebacker traditionally has been a big hitter in the run game. But as teams started to spread the field and go to more passing attacks, the job description has changed.
The linebacker must still stop the run, but he also must be able to cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game.
“I don’t know where it started,” Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “It might have started in college. The college game has switched to the spread thoughts, the run-and-shoot thoughts. Just wide open and tons of speed and athleticism all over the field. I think that’s transferred into our game.”
With teams using three- and four-wide receivers formations, the defenses have had to match or get exploited.
“It’s become a deal where there are so many good skilled players out there with just amazing athleticism,” Ulbrich said. “If you don’t have the players to match that, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are going to find the matchup that they want. They are going to isolate you and expose you. We’ve got to be athletic.”
The Falcons went all-in with the transition when they selected Deion Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft. He weighed only 222 pounds and was the fastest linebacker at the NFL combine.
He had a spectacular rookie season and appears primed for superstardom in the league at middle linebacker.
“It puts a big burden on Deion to really be technically sound,” Ulbrich said. “For Deion to thrive in this league, he has to have perfect technique. His pad level, his hands and his strike ... all of those things have to be perfect. It makes it a little tougher, but in the back end (of the defense) it’s harder to isolate him because he’s such an athletic guy.”
The speedy Jones finished with 106 tackles, a forced fumble, 11 pass breakups and three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns). He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team.
In the playoffs, Jones added 20 tackles, three pass breakups and another interception.
Ulbrich was a 6-foot and 249-pound linebacker who played 10 years in the NFL. He was what was called a “thumper” linebacker.
“The thing nowadays, its not like first, second and third down like it used to be,” Ulbrich said. “People are opening up on first down. They look and see what you’re in, and if you’ve got the guy they think they can expose, they do it on first down and get the matchup that they want.
“There are defenses where there is not as much vertical responsibility. We’ll take receivers, and we’ll take them on vertical routes. For us to be able to do that, we have to have guys that have speed.”
The Falcons also added De’Vondre Cambell in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, and he can cover tight ends. They also added Duke Riley, another smallish and speedy linebacker, in the 2016 draft.
“It’s really just playing fast and physical,” said Jones, who started playing linebacker in his sophomore year of high school. “That’s really all they are asking me to do. Be on my details when the ball is snapped, just hauling tail. Getting on and off blocks. They know I’m able to do it. They didn’t doubt me one second. They knew I was going to be able to do the job. I just had to show them.”
After thriving on special teams at LSU, Jones broke into the starting lineup late in his college career.
“Our defense was just a downhill and fast style of football,” Jones said. “We had guys like Lamin Barrow, Kwon (Alexander), Duke (Riley), Kendell Beckwith and Donnie Alexander, who’s there now. It was just the same style of ball. We were just flying around, playing downhill and hitting anything in sight.”
Jones is comfortable attacking or playing in coverage.
“They try to isolate linebackers and try to get the advantage on linebackers,” said Jones, who liked the Saints old Dome Patrol linebacker unit -- Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson and Sam Mills -- and Ray Lewis as a youth growing up in New Orleans. “I feel like by us being fast and being able to match fast guys, it helps out a lot.”
To get their linebackers ready for coverage, the Falcons have them cover tight ends and running backs. They get great tests from tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in practice.
“The linebackers, when you play zone, you better be able to plant and break (on the ball),” Quinn said. “So, if you have vision on the quarterback as a player, how fast can I plant and break.”
Jones can do it very well.
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