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Understanding the MIKE Linebacker in Gus Bradley's 4-3 Defense

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 weakside 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 second installment, we’ll be discussing the MIKE 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 middle linebacker, or MIKE, is the quarterback of the defense and got his name because he is 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 strong side of the offensive formation. As the quarterback of the defense, he is largely responsible for reading the offense, calling the defensive plays, and getting the defense lined up correctly.

Whereas the SAM is the primary run defender on the strong side of the offensive formation, the MIKE is generally considered the secondary run defender. The MIKE’s first order of business is to keep the weakside linebacker (WILL) “clean” by neutralizing any offensive linemen who reach the second level. It’s his job to stack and shed blockers at the second level, keep his eyes on the ball, and chase down ball carriers from sideline-to-sideline. Much like with the SAM, the ability to rush the passer is considered a bonus in a good MIKE.

Coverage responsibilities for a MIKE can vary depending upon which type of 4-3 defense a team runs, but they are generally required to read and attack underneath routes in their zone while also being comfortable enough in coverage to drop into the deep middle (15+ yards down the field between the hash marks) and disrupt passing lanes. Some MIKE backers handle a fair amount of man-on-man coverage; I’m just not sure that’s Bradley’s plan.


Build: Because he needs to both take on blockers and cover a lot of ground as the secondary run defender, the MIKE linebacker needs to possess the right combination of size and explosiveness. That means the MIKE will usually stand 6’0” – 6’2” tall, weigh 230-240 pounds, and have a wingspan of at least 60”. He probably won’t be quite as wide through the shoulders and hips as the SAM because he needs to be light, nimble and explosive enough to cover a ton of ground as both a run defender and a pass defender.

Athleticism: While NFL teams certainly want their MIKE linebackers to be strong enough to tussle with offensive linemen at the second level, they will generally sacrifice size and strength for speed and explosiveness at this position. The MIKE needs to have a lightning quick first step, outstanding footwork to navigate traffic in the running game and break on passing routes, and possess the closing burst to chase down plays all over the field.

Intangibles: A MIKE has to be a vocal leader, exhibit elite instincts and anticipate how the offense will attack the defense. He has to know the defense inside and out and be the tone setter for his unit.

Ideal Fit

Best fits: Denzel Perryman, Joshua Perry

At 6’0”, 240 pounds, Denzel Perryman has the frame teams tend to look for in MIKE linebackers. He has also proven himself to be adept at both taking on and beating blockers. His real value lies in his instincts, which allows him to cover a ton of ground, anticipate holes in the offensive line and make plays all over the field. Perryman is also the most aggressive and physical linebacker on the roster, which makes him the type of tone-setter most teams want at the MIKE.

Coverage is the primary area where Denzel falls short when compared to the prototypical MIKE linebacker. He’s effective when he’s able to read and react to underneath routes and has shown improvement in his deep zone drops, but remains a liability in man coverage. That’s why I expect the team to carve out more of a two-down MIKE role for him, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

As much as I like Denzel Perryman, 2017 may be a make or break year for the third-year linebacker, who has struggled with injuries and missed tackles throughout his first two seasons with the Chargers.

That’s why I think the Bolts are grooming Joshua Perry for the MIKE role. Perry, who is a hulking 6’3”, 257 pounds, is known for being a reliable tackler, a physical presence, a vocal leader and a tireless worker. He also started calling the defensive plays for the second unit the moment he set foot in Chargers Park last year and comes from a winning culture in college. He shares the same coverage concerns as Perryman, but that becomes less of a concern if they follow the two-down formula they intend to use with the SAM.

Prediction: The Chargers have every intention of rolling with Denzel Perryman at the MIKE linebacker position and, coverage concerns notwithstanding, he’s as close to an ideal fit as they have on the roster at the moment. I think the team values his physicality in the middle of the defense, and against the run in particular. That’s why I think they’ll create a two-down role for him while letting him focus on underneath routes and the occasional deep drop. They’ll offset his coverage shortfalls by funneling more challenging coverage duties through Jatavis Brown and the safeties as needed on early downs with Korey Toomer and Brown occupying the two linebacker spots when the Chargers go nickel (4-2-5).

While I think the team will give Perryman every opportunity to succeed at the MIKE, he may be playing on borrowed time. He’s had a hard time staying healthy and has struggled with missed tackles. That combined with Joshua Perry’s reputation for being a leader, as well as his relationship with Joey Bosa, may have him on the fast track to playing the MIKE in Gus Bradley’s defense. He’s the physical presence I think they value, is experienced in the 4-3 defense, and sets the tone with his work ethic every time he sets foot in the team facilities. If anything, his intangibles are going to push him up the depth chart sooner than some may realize.

That pretty much does it for the second installment in my series detailing the three linebacker positions in Gus Bradley’s defense. As discussed, the MIKE position is the quarterback of the defense and the secondary run defender. It’s his responsibility to keep the WILL clean by neutralizing any blockers at the second level, sifting through traffic, and making plays. He’s expected to be physical, athletic, and able to cover considerably more ground than the SAM, and is usually asked to monitor underneath passing routes and the deep middle.

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