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Tape Don’t Lie: The Sam Linebacker question

Looking into Gus Bradley’s base personnel scheme

Las Vegas Raiders Training Camp Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

When Gus Bradley was announced as the Las Vegas Raiders new defensive coordinator, the first question that came to mind was how would he create his under-front package out of the Raiders personnel.

Bradley’s most famous stint as a defensive coordinator came in Seattle during the “Legion of Boom” days. Famous for their secondary using incredibly high volumes of Cover 3, the scheme on the back end was relatively simple. What made the defense unique however was meshing together the “odd front” defense using 4-3 personnel.

At the time in the NFL, the majority of odd-front teams were out of 3-4 personnel. The 4-3 Under front however was not new, it was an age old defensive front created in the 1970’s by legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The 4-3 Under helped Nebraska University secure several national championships and Kiffin eventually brought the scheme with him to the NFL.

It was under Kiffin where Bradley got his first shot in the NFL as a defensive quality control coach (Jon Gruden’s staff) and then as a defensive coordinator coaching under Pete Carrol (another Kiffin disciple).

So what makes the 4-3 Under special? And what type of players does it require?

Overview

Field Gulls SB Nation

The beauty of the 4-3 under is deploying 5 men across the line of scrimmage. There are an odd number of defenders in gaps; thus “odd front.” It allows the defense to deploy a smaller “Leo” end because the extra number of defenders in gaps means the Leo won’t have to control the tackle and squeeze down the B-Gap; the 3-Technique defensive tackle is already there.

Same goes for the “SAM” linebacker who walks up over the tight-end. That player is a linebacker who is asked to essentially play defensive end against the run and hold the edge. But because the presence of the 5-Technique defensive end, the Sam simply has to focus on his gap and not worry about the C-gap.

However in the modern NFL, linebackers have steadily been getting smaller and smaller in order to make an impact in coverage. Many teams (Raiders included) are simply drafting big safeties to play linebacker in order to keep up with passing offenses in the NFL.

The 4-3 Under front isn’t called nearly as much by Bradley as it was in the early “Legion of Boom” days, however it remains an essential part of his defensive package in goal-line and short yardage situations.

Who will play Sam Linebacker?

We already know Yannick Ngakoue will play the LEO end in base personnel. However the questions that has yet to be answered is who will play the SAM linebacker spot? When the defense needs to stop a short yardage run and the offense lines up with multiple TEs in the game, this is Bradley’s tried and true method of defending the run.

The proto-type SAM linebacker is about 6’3, 250 pounds, however these days many teams use edge rushers of that size while the average linebacker in college is 6’1, 223 pounds according to a study done by NCSA. The average linebacker on the current Raiders roster (according to the team website) is 6’1 3/8, 227 pounds. So Bradley is in a tough spot figuring out how to get into his trademark 4-3 Under with the current group of linebackers.

Tanner Muse

First up for this spot is Tanner Muse. The Clemson product is a convert from safety to linebacker and he stands 6’2, 227 pounds. His speed has been lauded by the coaching staff and coming out of Clemson he played everywhere for the Tigers defense, known for being an exotic scheme.

Muse is widely believed to be a smart player because of the intricacies of playing in the Clemson defense, however the SAM Linebacker position requires more than smarts, that player needs brute strength to hold up Tight-Ends, set an edge, and turn the ball carrier back inside on run downs.

As a former defensive back, it’s unlikely that this is a strength of Muse’s game at this point in his career. The Raiders 3rd round pick in 2020 has yet to take an NFL snap after all. He was however used as an occasional edge blitzer in college and had mixed results when shooting into the backfield.

Muse had a handful of good plays on the edge in college. But as you can see from the clip above, rarely did he have to engage a blocker and set the edge. Instead Muse simply shot into the backfield. Bradley will of course call blitzes in Base Personnel, in fact Bradley blitzed on 25% of passes vs Base Personnel in that last 4 years. The other three-quarters of the time Muse will have to stay square and fight off blockers—something we can’t be sure he is good at until we see it on film.

Malcolm Koonce

“Today was my first day playing some linebacker. It’s an I’m going to get in where I fit in type situation. Wherever Gus or the other coaches think I can be the most successful or help the team the most, throw me in there.” —Raiders Edge Malcolm Koonce

Recently Tashan Reed of the Athletic was able to get Malcolm Koonce on record, confirming the young pass rusher had been getting reps at linebacker. Although Muse has drawn praise from the coaching staff, the whole point of getting into the Under Front and walking the Sam up on the line of scrimmage is to stop the run. It is likely that the coaching staff feels the need to try Koonce at that spot in order to get a bigger body on the edge—someone who is used to playing at that position.

Koonce comes in at 6’2, 250 pounds, quite a bit heavier than the rest of the linebackers under contract. He played edge defender for four years in college so defending the run and setting the edge won’t be a new experience for him.

Maybe not a new experience, but it will be a wake up call for the pass rusher. Koonce’s biggest issue in college was defending the run. Now having the role of a run stopping linebacker in short yardage situations isn’t exactly the easiest projection.

Koonce struggled at times holding his ground against kick-out blocks and using physicality to defeat offensive linemen in the run game. His leverage and power were on full display as a pass rusher so there’s an outside chance Linebackers coach Richard Smith can unlock that in him. But once again we’re grasping at straws attempting to predict who can play Sam linebacker for the Raiders.

Conclusion

The lack of a true option at Sam LB and the defensive staff having to choose between a former safety or a former defensive end is likely the reason KJ Wright was brought in for a visit and eventually offered a contract. Bradley also spoke about trying Littleton at that spot this off-season, which looks like a failed experiment at this point.

This team seems to be set with their nickel lineup, a personnel grouping that will play the vast majority of the game. There will be times (whole games for some opponents) that simply requires a bigger personnel grouping to stop the run and to gut it out against ground and pound offenses. In those scenarios Bradley could be coaching without his favorite front, unless the Sam Linebacker position can be straightened out.