An off ball linebacker in football is a linebacker that is not primarily responsible for rushing the passer. In simpler terms, these linebackers do not line up on the ball/on the line of scrimmage.
Instead, these linebackers line up five or so yards back from the line of scrimmage and defend the middle of the field from passes and runs.
Off-ball linebackers are generally your middle linebackers or most linebackers in a 4-3 formation.
Some definitions of this position state that off-ball linebackers tend to be a little bit faster and more athletic than most linebackers. This allows them to more effectively cover tight ends and running backs on passing downs.
One of the most important responsibilities of an off-ball linebacker is pass coverage. For this reason, you may find that off-ball linebackers will often wear football gloves. Since this player is off the ball it is vital that he completes his assignment and covers his man or zone.
This linebacker can be matched up one on one with a tight end, running back, or receivers that line up in the slot. Or they can be given a zone to cover, usually, this is the middle of the field, sometimes intermediate and sometimes a deep zone.
With the other linebacker going after the ball pass coverage duties are often the main responsibility of an off-ball linebacker.
Though these players are utilized in pass coverage they are still very involved in the run game.
This off ball linebacker often works as the last line of defense before the ball-carrier reaches the secondary.
If the defensive line makes contact with the runner these linebackers should be right behind them to bring the player down if he happens to escape.
Though not their main responsibility off-ball linebackers are sometimes tasked with rushing the passer. On these plays, the linebacker will blitz the offensive line in an attempt to bring the quarterback down.
Since this player typically plays off-ball a blitz may catch the offensive line off guard. Oftentimes resulting in confusion and a potential sack for the linebacker.
Off Ball Linebacker Attributes
Speed is one of the most important attributes of this position. As the game evolves to pass the ball more and more these players need to maintain speed to keep up with the offensive players.
Tight ends for example have become much more athletic over the years making a linebacker’s job much harder. It is athletic tight ends and running backs that require this position to maintain a high level of speed.
If an off-ball linebacker cannot match the speed of his assignment he will have trouble pulling off his pass coverage duties effectively.
Ball skills are another important attribute of playing this position. On top of covering players effectively, an off-ball linebacker needs to perform when the ball is thrown his way.
Whether that involves the off ball linebacker breaking up a pass to a well-covered receiver. Or intercepting a pass and taking it the other way.
Having quality ball skills at this position can be incredibly helpful.
Though these players aren’t usually known for their big hits an off-ball linebacker still needs to be able to tackle effectively.
As we stated earlier this position is often the last line of defense in the box on running plays. Allowing this player to reach the secondary can often mean a large gain.
In order to seal these plays off this linebacker needs to be able to tackle players consistently when they end up coming his way.
The build of an off ball linebacker is essentially that of most linebackers yet slightly leaner.
These linebackers typically weigh ten to twenty pounds less than your average middle linebacker. This loss of weight is usually a reduction in muscle mass as well as fat.
These linebackers are muscular but not particularly large. They also tend to carry little to no body fat. This reduced weight allows these linebackers to keep up their speed in order to cover the opposing teams receiving threats.
This linebacker will usually line up five or so yards off the line of scrimmage and may start the play lined up directly over the receiver or tight end they are covering.
If playing zone an off ball linebacker will usually watch the middle of the field. Oftentimes working deeper into the defensive backfield as the play progresses.
The term off-ball linebacker covers a fair amount of linebacker positions in football including linebackers in a 4-3 formation as well as a 3-4 formation.
We hope that this guide has taught you everything you need to know about off ball linebackers. This position is essentially a middle linebacker with a focus on pass coverage.
These linebackers have increased in usage over the years along with the NFL’s pass-happy offenses. If you are looking to learn more about the position please reach out with any questions.