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

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NFL: San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-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 first installment, we’ll be discussing the SAM 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.

Author’s note: Yes, I’m aware Gus Bradley refers to the SAM linebacker as the “OTTO”, but it’s lame and there is no discernable difference between the SAM and the OTTO, so I refuse to acknowledge Bradley’s vernacular. That’s why we will only refer to the strong side linebacker position as the SAM from this point forward.

Defensive Positioning and Role

The strong side linebacker, or SAM, got its name because it is generally positioned on the strong side of the defense, which is the tight end side of the offensive formation. The SAM will line up in a two-point stance (standing up) wide of the tight end in hopes of creating a mismatch by forcing that player to block him one on one.

Because he’s most often asked to line up on the strong side of the line (side with the most blockers), the SAM is seen as the primary run defender among the linebackers. He essentially acts as a fifth defensive lineman, attacking the outside shoulder of the tight end in hopes of creating a favorable one-on-one matchup on the edge. He is expected to occupy his man, set a physical edge, and force running plays back inside, while also shedding his blocker and making plays when the ball comes his way. The ability to rush the passer is usually considered a bonus.

The SAM has also traditionally been asked to run with tight ends in coverage, but this has changed as the tight end has become more involved in the passing game over the years. As tight ends have become increasingly athletic and teams have introduced more three and four wide receiver sets, the SAM has increasingly become a two-down linebacker.

Prototype

Build: In order to meet the physical demands of being the primary run defender, the ideal SAM must be an imposing physical presence above all else. For that reason, the SAM is generally at least 6’2” tall, weighs 240-250 pounds (if not more), and possesses a 60-65” wingspan. He will also have broad shoulders, a tapered waist, and a thick, powerful lower half. Why so big? Because the SAM needs to be powerful and durable enough to withstand the constant pounding associated with butting heads with opposing lead blockers 40+ times per game over a 16-game schedule, which is among the most physically demanding jobs in football.

Athleticism: In his role as the primary run defender the SAM linebacker doesn’t necessarily need to be a speed merchant, but he should be light enough on his feet and possess the initial burst and lateral quickness to close out ball carriers along the perimeter. As mentioned above, some teams do look for three-down SAMs capable of providing solid, if not outstanding, value in zone and man coverage; but they have become increasingly difficult to find. This is why most teams are generally value size and power over speed and explosiveness in their SAM linebacker.

Ideal Fit

Best fits: Kyle Emanuel, Korey Toomer

If you were to ask me which current Charger linebacker best exemplifies the traits of a two-down SAM linebacker (and I stress two-down), Kyle Emanuel would be the first name on my list. Why? For starters, as a 6’3”, 250-pound former defensive lineman, with a 60”wingspan and above average lateral quickness, he possesses all of the physical and athletic traits of a prototypical SAM.

In addition to that, Kyle is the most proficient edge setter on the roster not named Joey Bosa. He also uses his hands well and has demonstrated the first step and lateral quickness required to close out running backs on the perimeter. I also buy into the notion that he would benefit from spending less time in coverage while being singled up against tight ends as a run stuffer and a pass rusher.

Having said that, I have my doubts about Bradley’s ability to successfully rotate Emanuel in and out of the lineup based on anticipating run or pass, and am having nightmares and intense cold sweats just thinking about Kyle in “coverage”.

That’s why my sleeper for this position is Korey Toomer. While Toomer (6’2”, 235) may be a tiny bit undersized compared to a prototypical SAM, he makes up for his lack of ideal bulk with his plus anticipation, athleticism, technique and coverage ability. He is the second best edge setter and best finisher against the run among the linebackers, understands how to shed blocks, and has established himself as an asset in coverage. He has the potential to be that three-down SAM for which teams search high and low, but he may have to wait his turn behind Emanuel for the time being.

I almost listed Joshua Perry here, but I think he’s ticketed for another role.

Prediction: There isn’t much to predict here because Gus Bradley already said the team expects to open the year with Emanuel playing a two-down SAM role. It makes sense because it means the team is trying to put their home-grown, third year linebacker in the best position to succeed by asking him to focus on stopping the run and rushing the passer while limiting his coverage snaps. At least early on they’ll pair he and Toomer together at the SAM, with Korey joining Jatavis Brown occupying the two coverage linebacker spots when the Chargers go nickel (4-2-5).

But there’s a catch. Sooner or later, the team will realize they can’t shield Emanuel from coverage snaps as well as they’d hoped. This will open the door for Korey Toomer to begin stealing snaps from Kyle as his versatility once again shines through in key situations. I don’t blame the team for wanting to give the younger, home grown player first crack at this critical role, I’m just not convinced he’s well rounded enough to survive when opposing offenses find a way to isolate him in the passing game.

That pretty much does it for the first installment in my series detailing the three linebacker positions in Gus Bradley’s defense. To recap: no matter what Gus Bradley calls it, the OTTO is still the SAM; and the SAM is the physically imposing, powerful and durable primary run defender with a quick first step and above average lateral quickness. It’s his job to occupy lead blockers, set the edge, force ball carriers inside, finish along the perimeter and, ideally, cover tight ends down field.

Hopefully this helped shed some light on what is expected of the SAM and what encompasses the prototypical SAM linebacker. Stay tuned for my break down of the MIKE linebacker position, which should be available for your reading pleasure sometime this weekend…