Mag Sneak Peek: Inside the Helmet

The staff often receives questions about the idiosyncrasies of football, perhaps how a certain scheme is run or how a certain position is played. Well, we figured there is no better source for these answers than the individuals who actually played or are still playing the game. Our Inside the Helmet series features former Nittany Lion players who share their insight and experiences on the sport.

In this edition, former PSU linebacker Deryck Toles explains how linebackers read opposing offenses. A defensive captain as a senior at Penn State, Toles was a four-year letterman who started 27 games. He ended his college career with 179 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions. He spent the 2005 NFL season with the Indianapolis Colts. Currently he is recovering from an injury, but is expecting to play professional football again following his recovery.

Inside the Helmet: Linebacker Reads

One of the most challenging aspects of playing linebacker, particularly at Penn State, is the need to rely on your instincts in order to read and react off the snap. Lots of players have speed and instincts; but the special players have the ability to identify the tendencies of an offense, which can often serve as clues regarding their actions off the snap.

Here are some of the keys to playing the position:

Step 1: Focus On The Line

When getting ready for a play, the first thing I focus on is the offensive line. You start by looking at their stance; some players sit back on their heels on pass plays, given that they are expecting to drop back to create a pocket. Conversely, many linemen will lean forward and get up on their toes when it's a run play, since they are moving forward on a shift or pull to open up a lane.

The linemen tend to get progressively easier to read throughout the course of a game given that they get tired. Often they are more concerned with picking up their block and don't focus on the details of their fundamentals as much. This allows for the clues to become more obvious for defenders.

Step 2: Read The Back

Next, I key in on the running back to check his alignment in the formation. Depending on how deep he is sitting in the backfield, you can sometimes predict a run or pass play. If he's sitting deep — for most teams this means about 6.5 plus yards back behind the line of scrimmage — you can expect a run. On the other hand, if he's sitting shallow, at six yards or less, or positioned off-set in the scheme, you can expect a pass.

The reason the running back sets himself deeper for running plays is because it's easier to make initial reads and cuts, and allows the blocking to develop and hence further read the lanes. Basically it gives him more reaction time as the play develops. The running backs typically align shallow for pass plays because it's easier for them to pick up their assignment and get to the player they are blocking.

Now, the depth a running back sits at may vary from team to team. That's why we watch a lot of film, to catch the precise range of yardage where the running backs align themselves. Aside from his positioning, I also lock onto his eyes. If he has a blocking assignment on a play, he'll probably take a good, long look at his target man to make his own read on the assignment. If he is running he will focus on the defensive line and linebackers in an attempt to identify any gaps they are providing which he may be able to exploit.

Step 3: Catch The Tight End

Tight ends can be extremely helpful when dissecting a play. First, I look for the tight end release. This is something that is even easier to see in the NFL than in college. A tight end release is a move that he uses to get open for a pass. Normally it's a swim move (reaching out to get around his assignment), jab step (to throw his assignment off coverage) or a free release if nobody is over him. If I can see the tight end get a release out of my peripheral vision, then he's not blocking anybody, which means it must be a pass play. If I don't see him get a release, then he must be blocking somebody, which typically means it must be a run.

Game Preparations

Before and during a game, I look for habits. When you watch film on people, they have certain tendencies that they do all of the time. Quarterbacks have certain signals, running backs point to certain sides and linemen make certain calls. You can't hear calls on film, but these are things that can be picked up as the game goes on. Teams also call certain plays in certain situations — out of coaching habits. Some teams like to run on first down, others like to go for a big play. Second down and short normally means play action. And third and short can go either way depending on the team, where they are on the field or what they are having success with.

Strengths and weaknesses are normally determined throughout the game. If your defense is having trouble stopping in one area, when the offense needs a play, they are going to expose that weakness. Just as if the offense is having trouble blocking a specific player, you have to let him rush. I've been in games when we had trouble stopping the run, so when they needed a first down, I expected the run. Because I determined the play, I was able to make a stop in the backfield, despite having trouble earlier in the game.

Communication Is Key

Communication is the most important concept of any defense. Everyone must be on the same page or the defense will not work, no matter who the players are. As a linebacker, I have to make certain calls depending on what tendencies I get from the offense — I communicate my reads.

Think of a traffic light. If I think it's a run, I yell "RED," which means stop and hit the blockers. We want the defensive line to hold up the offensive line so they don't create seams and holes for the running back. On the other hand, if I think it's a pass, I yell "GREEN," which means go and rush the quarterback. Now the defensive line and the blitzers can feel free to rush the passer. If I think it's a play action or trick play, I yell, "YELLOW," which means caution, something tricky is up.

All of this goes on in my head before every single play. This is why the linebacker position is the quarterback of the defense. The more you study before the game, the easier it is to make plays. As a linebacker, you can't just GO when the play starts. You have to be GONE once the play starts.


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