Manti Te'o came to a floundering Notre Dame program as the top rated linebacker recruit in the country. Now in his senior season, the four year starter is anchoring one of the top defenses in the country. He possesses a number of skills that NFL teams look for in their linebackers - he has (what appears to be) an elite Height/Weight/Speed combo, being listed at 6'2, 255 pounds. But what's most impressive about Te'o is how far along he is in terms of playing with his eyes, trusting his keys, and making plays within the structure of the defense.
What Linebackers See
One of the things that's always frustrated me about EA Sports' series of football video games is the way defensive pursuit is coded. The only thing defenders are aware of in video games is who has the ball, and they're programmed to chase to the ball with direct pursuit angles regardless of scheme, assignment, or logical run fits.
Similar to quarterbacks, linebackers have post-snap keys that direct them on where to go and how to "fit" into the defense. There are three basic ways to teach a linebacker how to read a play: reading backfield action, reading the offensive line, or the "Triangle" or "Blur" read - a mixture of reading the line and backfield flow together.
To start out, most linebackers are taught to just key the running backs and fast flow to their respective gap based on the back's movement. It is fast and it is easy, but there is a lot of room for error - especially against a back who is more physically talented than the linebackers or against a team that uses a lot of misdirection concepts in their run game (Counter/Gap, Inside Trap, etc.).
The second pre-snap key method is to read offensive linemen. This method was at it's most popular against Single and Double Wing teams that loved to utilize misdirection and pulled linemen often. For a full explanation of how inside linebackers read offensive line blocking combinations, check out this write-up by Dr. B of the Clemson blog, Shakin the Southland.
The final progression in teaching a linebacker on how to read keys is the Triangle or "Blur" read - a mixture of reading both the offensive line and backfield flow. This sounds complicated and like it would be a slow process, but really, there are only so many types of blocking combinations and backfield actions that an offense can run that make sense.
From what I've seen in his performances, Te'o has begun to master the Triangle read. As such, he is rarely fooled or out of position, playing almost as if he's in other teams' huddle. Let's take a look at some examples, starting with Stanford and their favorite run play - Power.
The tight end and linemen on the playside all block down, with double-teams at the point of attack to get the defensive line moved off the line of scrimmage. On both double-teams, one lineman will slip off and pick up a linebacker. The fullback kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage, opening up the off-tackle alley for the runner.
Once again, the tight end and linemen playside block down. The main difference is to get a clean lead block on the middle linebacker. To accomplish this, the offside guard (hence the "O" in "Power O") pulls, wraps around the double team, and leads through the hole. The backfield action is the same, with the fullback kicking out the end man and the back hitting it in the alley off-tackle.
Power Pass (the infamous Spider 2 Y Banana that Andrew Luck broke down for Jon Gruden) is the major constraint play for Power, used to keep the linebackers honest against Power and/or gash them once they start cheating and looking into the backfield. The fullback simulates his kickoff block, but continues past the end man into the Flats, with the runningback picking up the block. The hope is the linebackers will see the Power backfield action and fill vs the run, leaving either the fullback open in the Flat, or the tight end running the Corner (Banana) route.
As you can see, the backfield action for all of these plays is exactly the same, with Power Pass being used to take advantage of linebackers who start to cheat and fly up. The only discernable way to tell the difference between the plays is by the offensive line's movement right off the snap. Even if/when Stanford chooses to pull a guard in their Play Action, there's still a very obvious tip-off on Play Action passes - the offensive line will pop their heads straight up out of their stance, as opposed to firing off low and hard like they would in the run game.
Stanford is running Power Pass in the Redzone. If you look at just the quarterback and fullback/runningback it looks exactly like Power, but note the pad and helmet level of the offensive line. They're all sitting in "the chair" - upper body straight up, lower body bent, ceding ground and setting up to pass. There is no threat of run at all based on the offensive line.
Recognizing pass immediately off the snap, Te'o finds his pass responsibiliy (tight end running the Corner - highlighted in red) and starts running with him. The first read in the progression is for the quarterback to take the easy dumpoff to the fullback, but the strongside linebacker has it covered (in yellow). The quarterback looks to the Corner, sees Te'o has it covered, and throws the ball away. Great coverage play by Te'o and the rest of the defense that doesn't show up on the stat sheet.
Stanford lines up in an unbalanced I formation set (three offensive linemen with an eligible tackle to the strongside, with a tight end lined up on the weakside as a tackle). Te'o is lined up over the weakside guard, and that guard is the first lineman Te'o will read on the play.
Te'o reads the pulling guard and the flow of the fullback immediately off the snap of the ball, and begins his fill right off the center/left guard double-team (before all of the linemen or running back can even get out of their stances, no less.)
Te'o meets the runner as soon as he gets the ball, three yards deep in the backfield. I've highlited his starting point at the beginning of the play and the route he took. Reading the pulling guard off the snap took him directly into the backfield in less than a second.
As you can see, however, Te'o's head is down and he's lunging at the ballcarrier. His poor tackling technique here lets the runner spin-off and get back to the line of scrimmage. This is one area where he still needs some improvement - his eye discipline and trust in his keys puts him in position to make tons of plays behind the line of scrimmage, but he often gets too out of control. Instead of breaking down and redirecting with the back, he tends to run himself too far upfield, lunging at the last second to make a tackle, but this is a pretty minor and fixable problem when analyzing all the positives of his game.