When we wrangle up questions for our weekly mailbag, there are a few queries we expect to see:
“Will my team, the ____, win this weekend?” or “Is my team, the ____, really that bad?” or “Who is the best quarterback in the league?”
Yes. No. Aaron Rodgers. Whatever order you wish to put that in.
While every question has its merit – and believe it, we enjoy answering every one of them, so keep sending them in to firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at #askplaybook – only a special kind of question can launch us into a raging debate.
That question starts or ends with “why?”
This week, such a question came via Twitter from @Damsnyg, who
“Who is the best MLB (middle linebacker) playing in the league right now and why?”
First of all, we love to break down some defensive football. And we get really geeked about “why,” because it is something we are uniquely able to answer after watching hours of coaching tape.
So, with that being said, let’s go around the room and answer @Damsnyg’s question.
Take it away, Moderator:
Moderator: OK guys, who leads the pack?
HB: Well, it’d be hard to argue with Patrick Willis, right? He has to be one of the most complete linebackers I have ever seen. He really covers the field, sideline to sideline.
Moderator: Absolutely. A lot of middle linebackers seem to make their living in the box. As much as you see him stuffing a running back in the hole, you are just as likely to see him jacking up a wide receiver or tight end along the sideline.
HB: Right, and his ability to play a ball in the air and read a receiver’s eyes when in man coverage makes him difficult to complete passes against. He is effective when blitzing, too, but San Fran doesn’t want to blitz him much because it loses an asset in coverage whenever they do. He is one of the few guys that you can spread the field against and, regardless, he will still be just as much of a factor against the pass as he is against a power running attack.
BF: Willis is one of the many great linebackers taken in that ’07 draft –- Jon Beason, Lawrence Timmons, David Harris. It has to be one of the best drafts for linebackers in a long time …
SC: Speaking of David Harris, why not throw his name into the mix here? He is at the heart of Rex Ryan’s Jets defense and presents a pretty nice combo of physicality versus the run and smarts as a blitzer or in coverage. And while he might not have as many tackles as Willis, he’s great at spilling plays to his teammates. He takes on blockers with authority. That kind of stuff doesn’t show up in the stat column but is invaluable to his team …
BF: I like Harris. But I was thinking of another guy from the ’07 draft. How about someone who was taken after all those guys, Desmond Bishop? He was a sixth-rounder out of Cal, but he has become a key contributor to the Packers’ linebacking corps since replacing Nick Barnett during their Super Bowl run in 2010. He’s a fundamentally sound 3-4 inside ’backer, like Harris, and his abilities as a communicator only helped raise the game of former first-round pick A.J. Hawk.
Moderator: I see where you are going with this one, but Bishop has never “wow”-ed me on tape. Not the fastest or the strongest guy, but what have you seen?
BF: Well, he’s great at “setting the stack” behind his linemen when “two-gapping” [which means he puts himself in position to play the run in two holes by working behind his defensive tackle, like B.J. Raji, who occupies blockers]. His timing and tackling angles are superb. He knows when and where to fill and where his help is coming from. At the same time, he understands leverage and shoulder positioning in absorbing blocks, leaving teammates free to make tackles. The stats bear out what kind of tackler he is, too.
Moderator: There’s a reason he ranks No. 3 in the league in tackles right now, with 53, behind the Colts Pat Angerer (73) and Kavell Conner. Angerer: what a great name for a linebacker.
HB: If you think Angerer’s great, you’re in for a “Ruud” awakening, because throw out the individual stats. Barrett Ruud is having a great year for the Titans.
Moderator: We catch your drift, very punny …
HB: Anyway, the Colts’ defense is getting thrashed on the ground (30th in rushing yards allowed), but Tennessee has held their opponents to 3.83 yards per carry on the ground this season and is a top-10 run defense despite losing Stephen Tulloch to the Lions and a rookie, Akeem Ayers, starts on the outside. Ruud is fearless taking on blockers at the point of attack and has improved greatly in play recognition. He rarely misses tackles and is fundamentally sound.
JB: But you know who really is having a coming out party this year at middle linebacker? How about Sean Lee? He’s everything you’d expect from a “Linebacker U” product. He’s great at reading and reacting to the run and comes downhill fast. He has studied Matt Millen‘s textbook when it comes to taking on blockers at the point of attack — strikes blockers with his facemask and disengages with his hands. At the same time, he is cat quick versus the pass. We’ve seen him break up passes from hash to hash and he shows the speed to really mirror tight ends. He’s taken playing time away from veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Not going to say he’s Patrick Willis yet, but look out …
PH: Hold up, I think we are too quick to anoint new kings here, especially when two of them never left the building. Lest we forget about Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis? Let me make arguments for both:
1) Urlacher –- he’s a field general who the Bears built their entire defense around. He doesn’t stand out on film as being overly physical with offensive linemen (he was a safety in college, after all), but he always has been around the ball in his 12-year career. While he can get taken out of the play when engaged cleanly by a lineman, his instincts get him to the ball most of the time. He’s also very active in coverage and shows smooth hips in his drops.
2) Lewis –- he’s the emotional leader and tone-setter for the Ravens’ D. Lewis plays north and south, taking on blocks as well as sliding around them to make tackles.
Moderator: You would have to say it’s a mismatch when Lewis is matched up with a running back or tight end, though? He can’t match Willis’ ability in space now.
PH: Of course, but he’s rarely asked to do that at this point in his career. The Ravens protect him by keeping him in the box and letting his teammates do the rest.
Moderator: So we have Willis, we have Harris, Bishop, Lee, Ruud — and we’ll give Urlacher and Lewis some consideration just because they are great ones who are still good at what they do. Any other wild cards someone wants to throw in there?
SC: How can we talk defense without putting a Steeler in there? A guy who I love, who never really gets the attention, is James Farrior. At 36 years old, he doesn’t have the quickness of a Lee or Willis, but he has racked up tons of smarts. It seems like he sees the play before it happens sometimes, because he’s always in the right place. Watching him on tape, you can tell he understands which route combination a team will run based on their formation and uses that knowledge to tip balls or force interceptions in underneath coverage. And like any true anchor of a great defense, he makes plays, like Harris with the Jets, that don’t show up in the stats. If they took count of blockers a linebacker has taken out, Farrior would be near the top of the list.
Moderator: @damsnyg, I think you got your answer(s).
We seem to like Willis the most, just because of his freakish abilities, and he is in the prime of his career. But you need to remember that there is a dearth of great linebackers in this league right now, and this debate shows you that. There might be better defensive “quarterback” play in the league right now than there is actual quarterback play. From Willis to Harris and Lee to Bishop, there are a bunch of tacklers who are catching our eye right now. Makes it fun watching the other side of the ball.
Now that we’ve said our piece (or many, many pieces), what do you all think?
Until next time …
“Playbook” -— the ultimate football Xs and Os show -— airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.