Outside Linebacker Position
An outside linebacker (OLB) is a linebacker (LB) who lines up behind the defensive line and to the outside of the linebacker formation. Their stance is upright and about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. Most defensive formations feature two OLB’s. Next to defensive ends, outside linebackers are some of the most spectacularly gifted athletes in all of sports. Big, brawny, and possessing lightning quick reflexes, professional OLB’s stand as a testament to both awesome genetics and incredible work ethic. To put it simply, outside linebackers are game-changers, and game-plan destroyers.
By taking a close look at some of the men who excel at outside linebacker, football fans can see that they dominate without respect to size. James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who stands an inch or two south of 6 feet at around 240lbs, literally puts backs and receivers “to sleep,” he hits them so hard. He said so himself, on camera! This guy is as vicious as they come, delivering knockout blows and collecting defensive awards with regularity. Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware is, quite frankly, terrifying. Probably the largest OLB at about 6’5” and weighing 260lbs, he chases frightened QB’s and ball carriers all over the football field. It’s almost unfair to the offense that a linebacker that huge has his kind of freakish speed. And it’s unfair what he does when he catches them – which doesn’t take long, by the way.
Outside linebackers handle a wide assortment of tasks on the gridiron, but their primary duties depend on their designation. For example, the OLB who lines up across from the offensive tight end is sometimes called the strong-side (SLB) or “Sam” linebacker. When the offensive set doesn’t feature a tight end, the SLB usually lines up to the side with the most offensive personnel. If a fullback comes charging out of the backfield as a lead blocker, it’s the Sam LB’s job to cause a head-on collision – and be the one who remains standing. Also, if a burly tight end wants to either run away from or straight at him, the strong-side ‘backer’s job is stop him cold. The SLB is a big boy; he stands around 6’3 – 6’5” and weighs 250lbs on average. He is both big enough to crush a TE and athletic enough to keep them in check and limit their touches. Last but not least, strong-side linebackers relish every chance they get to plunder, raid, and pillage offensive backfields. If the quarterback still has the ball when “Sam” arrives on a blitz, it’s good night!
The opposite OLB is referred to as the weak-side (WLB), or “Will” linebacker. Despite the moniker, these guys are anything but weak; in fact, they impose their “will” on offenses all game. Probably the lightest and fastest of the three linebackers, the “Will” excels in pass coverage and will blast any receiver brave enough to dare catch a pass in his zone. Or, if a running back heads up the sideline on a pass pattern, the weak side LB will track him and prevent the completion – violently if necessary. However, innovative and exotic zone-blitz schemes are where the weak-side linebacker really shines. When the WLB creeps up toward the edge, body taut and poised to strike, the offense has no idea his intentions. Is he bringing the heat? Or is he dropping back to snag an errant pass? Weak-side linebackers flat-out disrupt offensive game plans. They revel in creating confusion, chaos, and disorder for the offensive unit.
The Elites of the past:
The Pro Football Hall of Fame showcases many of games’ legends, and several iconic outside linebackers have busts on display in Canton, Ohio. Ray Nitschke, the rugged mauler for the Green Bay Packers, carved out a niche for himself by setting the standard at linebacker play. With a hard-nosed, brutal approach to the game, Nitschke chewed up QB’s and running backs, and then spit them out on the way to a Hall of Fame career at MLB and OLB. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted OLB Derrick Thomas in 1989, and the move paid immediate dividends. Thomas loved depriving ball carriers of both their wits and the football, with his 45 forced fumbles still standing as a NFL record. In 1990 against the Seattle Seahawks he set the league mark for sacks in one game, with an unheard of seven! But the greatest outside linebacker ever is without a doubt Lawrence Taylor. “LT” played his entire career for the New York Giants, and is considered by football historians to be the greatest defensive player who ever lived. Rarely in the annals of NFL history has a single player totally destroyed an offense’s will to win, and LT did so with striking frequency. The way he bullied offensive lineman and struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks was unrivaled. When he turned Redskins QB Joe Theisman’s right leg into a pretzel in front of a national TV audience in 1985, his reputation as a QB’s worst nightmare was cemented forever.
Current Elites and Show me the money:
The NFL game of the present features outside linebackers who simply make plays, and they earn top dollar for their services. The Steelers, for example, are paying Lamarr Woodley $61 million over the next 6 years to rough up QB’s, running backs and receivers across the league. Terrell Suggs, the pass rushing savant for the Baltimore Ravens, was recently awarded the same contract for consistently, relentlessly pounding offensive players without prejudice. The previously mentioned Demarcus Ware has the ‘Boys on the hook for around $11.3 million a season, as compensation for the damage he does to a QB’s psyche each and every Sunday. Other notable OLB’s in the league include Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, Shaun Phillips of the San Diego Chargers, and Lance Briggs of the Chicago Bears. All these guys are former or current Pro Bowlers, and all of them demonstrate a burning desire to leave a trail of battered and bruised offensive players in their wake.
Outside linebackers of today’s game are so extraordinarily talented, that they are creating a new standard at the position. A young player who aims to become an OLB has to have an insatiable hunger to succeed, and the desire attack the weight room with a vengeance. They should rely heavily on dumbbell and barbell squats to build an explosive lower body, and bench presses to chisel rock-hard arms, chest, and shoulders. OLB’s also need elite speed, so running stadium stairs and sprinting with weighted vests are also go-to moves. And they can’t overlook their core; the core is the base where all strength and explosion begins. Medicine ball twists, prone bicycles kicks, and planks should do the job quite well. By hitting these exercises with energy and focus, a young OLB will, over time, morph into a destructive OLB who makes quarterbacks run for cover.