Beyond relative youthfulness at quarterback, all eight of the remaining teams in these NFL playoffs have one commonality -- they're stacked at linebacker.
And given how scarce high-quality linebacker play is in today's NFL and the importance of the position, it makes sense for the clubs that've advanced to the second round of the postseason to have it.
Linebacker play is critical, even though in the past five years one linebacker has been almost universally removed from every base defense in the NFL. Because most teams are now rolling with two linebackers -- instead of the customary three -- it's truly become a premium position. Linebackers are the worker bees of the defense, loaded with nonstop responsibilities. And yet, in a game so laser-focused on passing and receiver-cornerback matchups, the duties carried out by linebackers are often overlooked.
Linebackers, particularly the excellent ones, are legitimate full-time players. They rarely, if ever, leave the field. Beyond that requirement, they're tasked with playing big on inside runs with 300-plus pounders climbing to the second level. They have to showcase vision and speed while sorting through traffic to get to outside runs. And don't miss a tackle! They have to blitz effectively, and of course there's the coverage aspect, a job responsibility that's expanded over the past decade. If your linebackers can't cover, the entire defense will be quickly be exposed, especially in the postseason.
Each team participating in the divisional round this week boasts at least one total stud linebacker or a previously castoff linebacker who's drastically elevated his play of late. The often overlooked, last line of defense has never been more important in the NFL.
The Bills have Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. The Bengals -- Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson. Kansas City's linebacker, Nick Bolton, has emerged as one of the best young three-down players at his position, while Willie Gay Jr. is a speedy specimen at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds. Foyesade Oluokun of the Jaguars led the NFL with 184 tackles during the regular season, the second-straight year he had more tackles than anyone else in football.
San Francisco's Fred Warner has been elite at linebacker for years now, and he's to Dre Greenlaw what Patrick Willis was to NaVorro Bowman for the franchise in the early 2010s. After navigating through plenty of injuries, Leighton Vander Esch is rekindling the magic of his spectacular rookie season in 2018. The Eagles have the super-steady T.J. Edwards patrolling the middle of their defense. And the Giants have gotten pleasantly surprising returns from former second-round pick turned journeyman Jaylon Smith.
Counting the first round of the postseason, this is the collective stat line for those 12 second-level defenders.
|Passer rating allowed||Total tackles average||TFL average||Missed tackle rate||Pressure-creation rate|
Playoff star linebackers
That 93.7 passer rating allowed may seem high. It's not. It'd rank as the 28th-lowest rating allowed at the linebacker position this season among 93 qualifiers.
For more context, the total tackles average is equivalent to Greenlaw's total tackle figure in the regular season; Devin White had eight tackles for loss for the Buccaneers this year; Gay himself was right at the collective average missed-tackle rate; and Patrick Queen generated a pressure on 22.1% of his rushes for the Ravens in 2022.
The highlighted linebackers here are an eclectic group. Edmunds and Vander Esch were first rounders; Bolton, Gay, and Smith were second-round picks; Pratt, Wilson, and Warner third-round picks; and the rest Day 3 selections. Edwards, somehow, went undrafted after a long, ultra-productive career at Wisconsin.
Pass rushers are highlighted players on every defense, and rightfully so. Cornerbacks also find themselves part of the spotlight covering household names at receiver every week.
But it should come as no surprise each of the eight divisional-round playoff teams have monsters at linebacker. It's the all-encompassing, do-everything position that appeared to be slipping into the shadows as the NFL drifted away from the run-heavy days of the past, but it has actually become the backbone of the game's best, most successful defenses.