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Why is a linebacker called Mike? What does this mean?

Ever hear commentators refer to a linebacker as Mike Sam or Willy and wonder who or what that is? It has nothing to do with a person’s name.

Ever hear commentators refer to a linebacker as Mike Sam or Willy and wonder who or what that is? It has nothing to do with a person’s name.

Everyone is accustomed to the arcane signal calling in football, and most fans can readily understand that an offensive call will contain information about who to block, where to run, and which receivers are expected to get the ball. But when it comes to defense, there is still a fair bit of confusion amongst viewers as to what goes on in defensive play calling.

So who is Mike?

When you are in a huddle, you need to deliver a lot of information quickly and simply. “50 fire sam slam willy a cover 2” may mean very little to anyone who hasn’t been inside a defensive huddle, but all of the basic information is there. Apart from the obvious look and coverage details, there are two linebackers name checked - Sam and Willy. Quite simply, these are two male names that start with the same letter as the strong side linebacker and the weak side linebacker.

In its basic form, there are two defensive fronts - three down linemen and four down linemen. Each of these has an almost infinite variety of looks, shades, stunts, and secondary coverage situations. But when you boil it all down, you are either in one or the other. If you have a three man front, then you will generally have four linebackers, two inside and two outside. If you are in a four man front, then you will have three linebackers, one middle and one on each side of him.

While teams can, and do, bring personnel on and off the field for each set, it is far more effective to be able to shift your squad around if needed. This often leads the strong side linebacker in the three man front to become the middle linebacker in a four man front. Because this is the position that most closely mirrors the quarterback, lining up four yards off the ball directly over the center, he has the responsibility of calling the strength of the offensive set.

In brief, the linebackers break down like this:

  • Sam linebacker - The strong side linebacker, who lines up on and keys the tight end. In a given set, he could have containment duty on the run, rush the passer, or drop into zone coverage.

  • Willy linebacker - The weak side linebacker, generally lining up either on or off the line on the slot or split end side. He has the most varied assignments and tends to be smaller, nimbler, and faster than most other linebackers. Kind of a halfway house between a true linebacker and a strong safety.
  • Mike linebacker - The middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. In a three man front, he will generally play over the guard to the strong side and generally has the responsibility of stopping the inside run, stunting a preset gap, or taking pass coverage on running backs coming out of the backfield.

Since television broadcasters have ex-players doing commentary, they tend to use the huddle jargon on the air, and this has been fully embraced by the wider sports media. So the next time you hear a linebacker referred to as Mike, Sam or Willy, you will know that it has nothing to do with the names of the players themselves, but rather is a reference to their position on the field.