Middle linebacker coverage in the 3-4 defense

During the TCU game the middle linebackers were given the difficult task of covering fast Horned Frog receivers out in the flats. The results were frustrating for BYU fans everywhere, leading to them questioning everything from player ability to the effectiveness of the scheme. However, the reasons behind the struggles might not be that simple.

Sophomore Buck linebacker Spencer Hadley played as a freshman before his mission and, as his sophomore season has worn on, he's received more playing time, especially during the TCU game.

"I'm not too sure why," said a humble Hadley about getting to play more. "It's just Coach calling my number, and I'm just happy to do it and happy to go in. These past couple of weeks we're rotating a little more and keeping each other fresh. As far as why, I'm not sure and I'm just happy that Coach put me in and I'm just happy to play."

Hadley being rotated in could have, as he said, been done in part to keep players fresh, rather than him simply replacing a struggling Brandon Ogletree. TCU's athletes were fast and often forced the Buck linebacker to cover out on the edge, so more rotation would help keep the linebackers fresh and help them handle that challenge. However, despite the challenge that TCU posed, Hadley feels the defense had the athletes to compete.

"As far as matchups go, I feel like we have the guys that can play with those types of guys and cover," said Hadley. "In the TCU game, and in that specific situation [where a middle linebacker is spread out to cover a fast wide receiver at the h-position], we had a couple of breakdowns in our coverage and they beat us deep and scored a couple of touchdowns as a result of that."

"It's always frustrating when you practice that, and you've had it down all week, then come game time a mental error is made. It's frustrating, but I felt like we had the guys out there that could play with them and cover them."

So what gives? If BYU had the linebackers to cover but a breakdown occurred, one would have to think it was an issue with the man-coverage within the scheme. Not so fast says Hadley.

"We don't necessarily play a man-to-man defense," he said. "We play a zone defense, and so there is a lot of passing off of players or high-low coverage. If you get beat in coverage in your area and they go deep, they're just passed off to the safety over the top that's helping with the route over the top."

As the first line of defense in a spread coverage, the middle linebackers are responsible for a given area before handing off a speedy receiver to someone else. However, a linebacker doesn't just get a pass here. If he fails to use his strengths to his advantage, it can stress the safeties who have to make quick decisions in the coverage scheme.

"As middle linebackers we have to play confident," Hadley said. "We know the guy lining up across from us is probably faster, but we also know he's probably not as big or strong as you, so there are things that you can do to try and slow him down a bit.

"You can get your hands on him a little bit and knock him off his route a little bit, and that helps. You have to play with that physical edge, and sometimes the check doesn't come through or everyone is not on the same page, then a breakdown can come and not necessarily it being a safety mistake."

So on the surface it may look as though the scheme failed in its coverage abilities, but then the argument could be made that if it were just that easy, more offenses would take advantage of that. The reality is it could be a variety of issues stemming from a lack of cohesion or a breakdown in area responsibilities.

"We have the guys and I believe in these guys and feel we can cover anybody," Hadley said. "You have to understand a lot about the game before you can really call out what's happening or say it was so-and-so's fault. It's easy to point fingers without knowing the responsibilities of all the players within a specific call. Sometimes the results of a play might not have been that player's responsibility that was closest to the ball or you see getting beat."

Then there's the coaching element that's factored into the equation. While the players often bear the burden of fan frustration and finger-pointing, a call by a coach can lead him to shoulder some of the responsibility.

"Coach Mendenhall will be the first to say that sometimes it even comes down to call," Hadley said. "We can get a call and sometimes it's not a very good call for what the offense ends up doing, so there's a whole lot that goes into any given play. So for someone to say, ‘Oh, that was so-and-so's fault,' that might not always be true. It's never just one guy's fault, because it's such a team situation and so many different aspects and details of the game that goes into it that if one of those things isn't right, a play is made against the defense."

This week Coach Mendenhall addressed with his defense what led to those breakdowns in coverage. Still, what occurred and how to defend it weren't anything the players hadn't already known or practiced time and time again.

"It's kind of frustrating because you practice it all week and you think you've got it right and then in the game, for whatever reason, you don't see it," said Hadley. "Sometimes you don't hear the call or sometimes you hear it but don't see the route combinations that you're supposed to see."

"When we watch film after a game where there are so many mistakes like that, it was literally painful," Brandon Ogletree said. "I felt sick to my stomach literally knowing that you let one go. That pain, you know, that provides sort of an extra urge, or whatever you want to call it, to do better and not let those happen again. If we learn from that, then it won't be too hard to swallow, but if we keep committing those mistakes, that will be hard to live with."

That's something BYU fans can agree with.

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