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Linebacker alignments explained

There are reasons why different stances are employed

Detroit Lions v New York Giants Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

New York Giants fan and Big Blue View reader, Ron Murphy, posed a fun question about the advantages and disadvantages of off-ball linebackers aligning on the edge. Here’s Ron’s question to the Big Blue View Mailbag:

“In a recent explanation to “off-ball linebackers,” you (Ed) stated, “… You will at times see these edge defenders with their hands in the ground like a defensive end, and at other times they will stand up.”

What are the advantages/disadvantages of either technique? Is one used when expecting a run? Expecting a pass?”

Great question, and thank you, Ron.

I’m going to tackle this from the perspective of off-ball linebackers first, since it was referenced at the start of the question.

Some defensive coordinators align their linebackers on the edge more than others. Wink Martindale and his positionless defense are not shy in employing this tactic, despite not having the most dangerous linebacking group.

On a side note, I do believe Darrian Beavers would have earned a role on the edge last season, for he executed that assignment on passing downs as a Bearcat and was an edge defender at UCONN early in his collegiate career.

Let’s use rookie linebacker Micah McFadden as a microcosm for off-ball Giants’ linebackers on the edge. Firstly, he was known more as a blitzing linebacker and was top-10 in pressures among linebackers in his last season at Indiana.

McFadden played in 435 defensive snaps; 63 of those snaps were on the edge - a 14.48% rate. Of those plays, 48% of them were on first down, 25% on second down, and 21% on third. Some of that, in part, was due to McFadden only playing on third down 11% of his overall snaps.

Regardless, in Martindale’s defense, it wasn’t always due to passing down situations. The Giants primarily employed the linebacker on the edge when in a 2-4-5 Nickel defense. Most of the time, the Giants would rotate the linebacker right before the snap to change protection responsibility and create one-on-one matchups for other defenders.

Crowding the line of scrimmage to keep offensive protection on their toes is one of the primary strategies of a Wink Martindale defense - pressure breaks pipes. Against the pass, the scheme dictates the offense, for the protection packages must account for possible threats.

The unpredictability of the linebacker dropping into coverage or blitzing added to the mystique of Martindale’s unit. By aligning a linebacker as a 6-technique (over the Y-TE), Martindale could disrupt the release of the tight end while also having the linebacker occupy an offensive blocker if he were to blitz.

There were also times when the linebacker on the edge aligned opposite the running back in shotgun, which is typically the path of the running back if he were to receive the football. If aligned on the same side, there were times when the linebacker would peel off and assume man coverage responsibilities against the pass, depending on the game plan tailored against specific offenses.

Against the run, a linebacker dropping to an edge position gave the Giants a five-man front (in nickel) and also helped create one-on-one matchups for Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams.

By doing this, when facing the run, the Giants also put the onus on the defensive line to hold up but also showed trust in the safeties to fill the alley. New York had two quality run defenders at safety last year in Xavier McKinney and Julian Love.

In terms of the personnel, while run defending, the linebackers have to survive on the edge; they don’t have to be Reggie White, but a low center-of-gravity, strong base, and a technical understanding of where/how to set an edge are required.

When they did employ the tactic in base personnel (3-4), it was usually against 12 personnel (two tight ends), but not always to the double-Y side (if present). The defense responds to the offensive personnel before every play. When teams employed 12 personnel, New York, at times, would respond with a 3-4 base defense.

Depending on the team’s tendencies and alignment, Martindale would shift an extra man on the line of scrimmage, creating a six-man front with five on the back end. Their ability to get pressure and harras was effective in base personnel when they attempted the tactic in 2022.

Just like the pre-snap portion of offensive football, defensive alignment is fluid; however, the defense is reactionary. There were times last season when linebackers, right before the snap, transitioned to the edge in reaction to presnap movement to give the Giants the front they desired (five or six men, depending on the situation).

Two and three-point stances

Just for quick clarification, a two-point stance means there are two points of contact on the ground - both feet. A three-point stance means there are three points of contact - two feet and one hand.

Some players prefer the low and explosive three-point stance, while others appreciate the flexibility of the two-point stance. One can still go forward in a two-point stance, but dropping into coverage from a three-point stance isn’t as steady. To a certain degree, it comes down to personal preference.

A lot of even front teams - what the Giants were during their recent Super Bowl runs - would feature edge defenders in a three-point stance. Modern NFL defenses are more unpredictable in terms of alignment, which lends credence to using a two-point stance.

Base 3-4 teams usually have their TITE front three interior defensive linemen in a frog stance or four-point stance. They align in this manner because it’s the best way to stay low to the ground with two feet firmly planted, so they can absorb contact and hold their responsibility.

The two-point stance almost certainly offers better visibility of the entire defense. In a three-point stance, one’s vision is a bit limited. Linebackers are used to aligning in a two-point stance as well. A two-point stance also helps mask one’s intentions; defensive players can move around and not fully commit to their gap/assignment until the snap.

A three-point stance grants the defender the ability to start low and explode low-to-high into contact. Many edge defenders have mastered staying low from a two-point stance, but not every defender can successfully do that; the bigger - more stiff - defenders are better off in a three-point stance.

A two-point stance leaves defenders a bit more susceptible to blocks due to higher pad levels, but I don’t necessarily believe this does, or should, preclude defenders from aligning in that manner during rushing downs if they are comfortable in a two-point stance. Again, it comes down to personal preference.