Thin Certainly Seems To Be \”In\” At Inside Linebacker

The trend to be thin is in. That is of course if you are an inside linebacker. Maybe thin is a bad adjective to use, but lighter certainly isn\’t. The further we get away from 2012 NFL, the more the selection of Miami linebacker Sean Spence by the Pittsburgh Steelers makes sense.

Linebackers coach Keith Butler laid down the reasoning behind the selection of Spence, who weighed in at the NFL combine at 231 pounds, on day two of the draft. When Butler was asked if Spence was a BUCK linebacker, he we went into great detail with his answer. “I wouldn’t call him a buck, no. The buck linebacker has to be a little bit bigger and take on the guards more,” said Butler. “We cover our linebackers up pretty good.  What I mean by that is, we let them scrape and run to football a little bit more instead of coming downhill and taking on isos.”

“The day of the iso with the middle linebacker is almost gone,” continued the linebackers coach. Everybody is using tight ends as fullbacks and sometimes they use them when trying to lead and sometimes they don’t.  A lot of stuff today is mis-direction and trying to fool you or out-number you one way and then give you a different look coming back the other way. A lot of that requires the ability to read from the linebackers now-a-days, not so much to get down and stuff a hole. Sometimes you have to do it on the goal line when you have to take on a big running back, but we’re taking on Ray Rice, we’re not taking on Jerome Bettis anymore.”

When asked if the days of a linebacker the size of Levon Kirkland are long gone in relation to the smallish size of Spence, Butler replied, “I wouldn’t say that. This guy is smaller than Levon Kirkland. Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart. He is probably best served if we can cover him up. What I mean by that is; if you look at James Farrior, he played the last four or five years at 230 pounds and when you get older like that, it’s best to be playing at 230 pounds as opposed to 235 pounds because he knows the game well enough that he is going to act fast enough and he can use the techniques and knowledge of the game, he doesn’t have to be as heavy. It’s better for him so he can keep his mobility, because that’s more important than anything else. This guy has that mobility.”

Butler also said at that time that Spence will start of playing the MACK linebacker spot initially, but never indicated a move to BUCK role later was out of the question. He later indicated during the offseason practices that Spence would likely see the field some in his rookie season just as LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons did in their first year in the league.

The Steelers aren\’t the only team to make the move to a lighter inside linebacker either, as Baltimore Ravens long time veteran Ray Lewis has also dropped several pounds for what will be his 17th season in the league. Lewis, who reportedly played at around 260 pounds in 2011, showed up Wednesday at Ravens training camp noticeably lighter and told reporters that this is the lightest he has been at the start of training camp in his 17 years in Baltimore. Like Spence, Lewis was regarded as an undersized linebacker when he was drafted. Coincidentally enough, Lewis also played his college ball at Miami, just like Spence.

While Lewis didn\’t reveal his actual weight to the Baltimore media, their math states he is now under 240 pounds. The reason Lewis gave for dropping the weight mirrors the reasoning that the aforementioned Butler gave during the draft. “The game is changing,” Lewis said. “The game ain\’t no more 250, 260-pound fullback and you don\’t have offenses running the ball 25, 30, 40-plus times. That was my thought process was coming into this year. Playing lighter is much smarter for me.”

“It\’s all based on matchups now,” Lewis added. “People want to find mismatches here and there. You have to change with the game.”

The mismatches that Lewis his obviously referring to is the new hybrid style of athletic tight ends that is sweeping the league like Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers is another a good example of a type of player that offenses now have decided to run through. Inside linebackers now not only have to be able to play the run and take on blockers, but also be reliable in coverage when asked to cover the new style tight ends and pass catching running backs.

The era of the hybrid inside linebacker, or nickelbacker, as some like to call it, is here, and it figures to be around for a while until defenses prove they can\’t be exploited in theses mismatches. In short, the Steelers selection of Spence makes more sense every day. While it is still early in his maturation process, the offseason practice reports on him were glowing. According to Butler he possesses a great understanding of the game and his first step is quick and decisive. I hate to label him a young Lewis just yet, but even if he becomes just half of the linebacker that Lewis was in his prime, it gets you pretty excited.

When you see a veteran like Lewis show up at a weight he hasn\’t had played at since college, you know that thin is indeed in.

I am, I'm me. 40 something, retired and a life long Steelers fan.
  • http://pete1.myopenid.com/ Pete

    Nice article (one of the reasons I keep coming back to this site). You have one of the best analysis of what is happening within the Steelers organization and the league in general, especially when you get into your number crunching and contracts with cap considerations.

    I remember that interview with Butler and I’m as intrigued as the next guy as to what we have in Spence.

  • SteelersDepot

    Thanks, Pete