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Breaking Down the WILL Linebacker in Gus Bradley's 4-3 Defense

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NFL: Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If my Twitter feed over the last few months is any indication, most Los Angeles Chargers fans seem a little unclear about what to expect from Gus Bradley’s 4-3 defensive scheme. Sure, they know the basics – four down linemen, three linebackers, a box safety and a deep safety – but beyond that, they want to know how the team’s front seven, and the linebackers, in particular, fit the new scheme.

As most fans know, there are three positions commonly associated with the 4-3: the strong side linebacker (SAM), middle linebacker (MIKE) and the weak side linebacker (WILL). But what does each position do? What sort of physical traits do we look for in each? And do the Chargers have ideal fits at any of these positions?

To help shed some light on the subject, I’ll be writing a three-part series detailing the linebacker positions associated with the 4-3 defense. In this, the third installment, we’ll be discussing the WILL linebacker position. In order to understand this position, we’ll break down his defensive alignment and responsibilities, his prototypical build and skill sets, and which Chargers linebackers best fit this position.

Defensive Positioning and Role

The weak side linebacker, or WILL, is the primary playmaker of the defense and got his name because he is typically positioned in the middle of the defense (more or less). He generally lines up 3-5 yards off the line of scrimmage and covers (lines up over) the guard to the weak side of the offensive formation. As the playmaker of the defense, he is asked to attack the line of scrimmage, flow from sideline-to-sideline, and make play after play on the football.

If the SAM and MIKE are doing their jobs, they’re keeping the WILL “clean”, or shielding him from blockers so he can roam from sideline-to-sideline and make plays on the football. He is expected to navigate the traffic created by the strong side and middle linebackers taking on blockers, fly downhill, penetrate the offensive line and not just make tackles, but make plays – and lots of them – on the football. If everyone else is doing their job up front, the WILL should see a whole lot of clean looks at the football.

Considering Kyle Emanuel and Denzel Perryman figure to occupy the SAM and MIKE, respectively, and neither of them is terribly reliable in coverage, I fully expect Gus Bradley to at least try to funnel the more challenging one-on-one coverage responsibilities through the WILL backer. That means in addition to gobbling up tackles and making plays versus the run, he also has to be highly proficient in all three phases of the opposing passing game (short, intermediate, deep), and will probably take a lot of deep zone responsibilities, too. Again, as previously stated, I expect the WILL to be flanked by Korey Toomer when the Chargers go to their 4-2-5 nickel package in obvious passing downs.

Prototype

Build: Size is far less of a consideration for a WILL backer than it would be for either the SAM or MIKE positions. He’s generally going to be around 5’10” – 6’0” tall, weigh 215-230 pounds, and be built more like an oversized free safety than a prototypical linebacker. He is generally leaner than the other linebackers and will be narrower through the shoulders and hips so he can adeptly navigate traffic, penetrate the line and make plays on the ball.

Athleticism: To (sort of) steal a line from one of my favorite movies, the WILL is usually built more for speed than for power. That is to say, of the three linebackers, teams generally value quick-twitch athleticism, speed, fluid footwork and a seamless ability to change direction in their WILL linebackers. He is definitely the best athlete among the linebackers and, in some cases, might be the best athlete on the defense because he needs to be able to cover the most ground in every direction.

Intangibles: Great WILL linebackers are defined by one thing – their instincts. They have to be able to read the offensive line, know where the ball is going, and get to his “spot” before the ball carrier does. He also has to be able to anticipate route combinations and make plays in the passing game.

Ideal Fit

Best fits: Jatavis Brown, Korey Toomer

Everything about Jatavis Brown screams “WILL linebacker”. From his frame (6’0”, 221), to his freak athleticism (4.44 40, 1.53 10-yard dash), to his knack for making plays as opposed to tackles (8 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 6 PBU, 2 FF in 7 starts), to his coverage skills and instincts, Jatavis was born to play the weak side linebacker spot in Gus Bradley’s defense. His lack of size and durability are certainly something to keep an eye on, and I’d like to see him bulk up just a little, but there is no denying he’s better suited to this role than any other linebacker on the roster.

Should Brown regress, or struggle to remain on the field, Korey Toomer is the most likely person to replace him for an extended period of time. Toomer is a very good athlete, has plus instincts, is extremely effective in covering ground and making plays against the run and happens to be the second best coverage linebacker behind Brown. He also has the added bonus of being bigger and, hopefully, more durable, than Brown. That isn’t to say I think Jatavis should be looking over his shoulder because I don’t; it’s just nice to have someone as versatile as Korey waiting in the wings if needed.

I’ve seen some point out that Joshua Perry played WILL at Ohio State and might be a candidate to play there for the Chargers, but I don’t see that as a viable option at this level for a couple reasons. First, Perry isn’t anywhere near the athlete Brown and Toomer are. Second, he just isn’t capable of taking on the coverage responsibilities I expect Gus to heap on his WILL. The Chargers would have a major problem covering tight ends and running backs if Bradley ran a starting trio of Kyle Emanuel, Denzel Perryman and Joshua Perry out there in his base defense.

Prediction: This is the easiest prediction of the three linebacker spots – injuries notwithstanding, Jatavis Brown will be the Chargers WILL linebacker. He will use his speed, athleticism, and instincts to be a disruptive force in the running game and become a major weapon as a coverage linebacker in both the base and nickel (4-2-5) defenses. The only way this changes is if he is unable to remain on the field because, like I said above, he was born to play this role.

That pretty much does it for the third installment in my series detailing the three linebacker positions in Gus Bradley’s defense. As discussed, the WILL position is the playmaker of the defense. It’s his responsibility to weave through traffic, attack the line of scrimmage, and make plays on the ball carrier. I suspect he will also assume most of the more challenging man coverage responsibilities while also being used as the occasional extra blitzer in this version of Gus Bradley’s defense. If everyone up front is doing their respective jobs, the WILL should be expected to make plays all over the field.

Hopefully, this helped shed some light on what is expected of the three linebackers in Gus Bradley’s 4-3 defensive scheme. Stay tuned for my next article, which will discuss a few of the veterans who might be on the roster bubble heading into camp…