NFL’s Pro Bowl should differentiate 3-4 & 4-3 OLBs


Dec 16, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) celebrates after a defensive stop in the first half against the New York Giants at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Two days ago, the NFL announced the NFC and AFC Pro Bowl rosters. Like any season, there were mainstays back for another appearance in Hawaii, veterans finally coming into their own, and rookies making their mark on the league. There were also a lot of players who view their exclusion from the roster as a personal slight, a ‘snub’ if you will. Virtually nothing about these rosters are new; it’s really just more of the same thing we see every year, the only variable being the players selected.

Just to make my world-view clear, I’m a Falcons fan. There are Falcons who should be selected to the Pro Bowl ahead of some of the players actually selected to participate in the Pro Bowl. As the season progressed, I was absolutely certain that Falcons outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon would make the Pro Bowl. I figured Matt Ryan would, based on his fantastic play, as would Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez on reputation alone. But no player has been quite the play-maker for the Falcons defense that Weatherspoon has been. He’s zoomed around the field, laying the lumber and running down some of the fastest men in the NFL. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s a Pro Bowler.

When, on Wednesday night, the Pro Bowl rosters were announced, Weatherspoon’s name was oddly missing. The three names present at outside linebacker for the NFC were San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews.

I don’t have anything whatsoever against those three players. They are fine players. Okay, I do harbor a slight resentment against Matthews for the January 2011 playoff embarrassment the Falcons experienced at the hands of the Packers. But I’m certainly objective enough to realize all three of them are outstanding linebackers.

But the one problem I do have is that all three of them are 3-4 outside linebackers. Each of those players are members of teams whose primary defensive philosophy is to run a 3-4 defensive scheme. It’s generally understood that in 3-4 schemes, at least one of the outside linebackers are predominantly used as pass-rushers. And these three players are absolutely the pass-rushing representative for their respective teams. Pass-rushing OLBs generally have lower tackle numbers, and high sack numbers. These three are no different.

What happened to having traditional, 4-3 outside linebackers being premiere players in the League? I’d like to make this cry out not so much on the part of Sean Weatherspoon as I am for all 4-3 OLBs, but Weatherspoon’s case is what truly brought this to my attention. It seems like guys who do a fantastic job in coverage, playing their man, shedding blocks in traffic, and making open field tackles against runningbacks and tight ends in space are getting far less publicity and reward than guys who are paid to tackle a stationary passer in the backfield.

I understand that quarterbacks get a disproportionate amount of attention in the NFL. I think most people have come to grips with that. And as a result, those players who are paid to lay siege to the bastions of passing attacks get an disproportionate amount of the defensive attention.

That doesn’t mean people who truly understand the game need to accept that or cry out against it. Guys like Sean Weatherspoon aren’t alone in this. Do you really think players like Chicago’s Lance Briggs or Minnesota’s Chad Greenway, or Carolina’s Luke Kuechly are that much less important to their teams than the pass-rushers are? I don’t think so. I don’t think the Panthers would be close to where they are defensively (though they are still dismal) without Kuechly. Or that the Bears defense would be as productive as it is without Briggs holding down the fort at the weakside linebacker position.

But things don’t necessarily just stop at the outside linebacker position. Look at defensive end. The three players that made the NFC Pro Bowl roster are Minnesota’s Jared Allen, Chicago’s Julius Peppers, and New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul. The three of them are colossally talented players, are extremely popular, and predominantly pass-rushers. Now, these three are a little different, as they are very complete defensive end. But are each of them that much more important to the team than their bookend counterpart? Without Israel Idonije setting the edge and keeping the quarterback in the pocket, it becomes much more difficult for Julius Peppers to sack the quarterback, or run down the ball carrier.

If there’s one thing that we can learn from all of this, it’s that Pro Bowl teams have become little more than popularity contests based on the popularity of NFL teams throwing the ball. Everything in the NFL has geared itself towards the passing attack and those who create sacks, including the Pro Bowl voting. But one thing is even more evident: simply loading up on the most popular players in the league, a team doesn’t make. It’s vitally important to have the selfless players, the guys who don’t hesitate to set the edge, the guys who find their way through traffic to make the tackle, the guys who get their nose in on every tackle, and the guys who play right offensive tackle not just left offensive tackle. There’s not nearly enough recognition for the hard-working blue-collar football players. And I think that’s reflective of the American society as a whole.