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I frequently hear quarterbacks say something like "53 has the mic" when pointing out the defensive formation. Usually the player number that he points out is a linebacker.

I believe the defensive player that the quarterback points out has the microphone that connects to the defensive coordinator, but what does that signal to the rest of the offense? Is that player covering, or is there some other job that comes with "having the mic"?

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Note that Mike is also the name for one of the middle linebackers (in a 3-4 or the middle in a 4-3). –  wax eagle Feb 15 '12 at 19:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 23 down vote accepted

In most cases he is actually saying "53 is the Mike".

There are four types of linebackers that are used in typical 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, respectively:

  • Mike - middle linebacker, responsible for calling plays, jack-of-all-trades
  • Sam - outside strong-side (the side with the tight-end) linebacker, blitzes most often, needs strength
  • Will - outside weak-side linebacker, drops into pass coverage most often, needs speed
  • Jack - middle linebacker used in a 3-4 on the weak-side of the Mike, another jack-of-all trades type

While the Mike Linebacker typically carries a microphone, the quarterback is not referring to the microphone that he is wearing, instead he is talking to his blockers and informing them who should block the "Mike". The term Mike linebacker has been used since well before any electronic communication was worn in the helmets. The Mike is considered the "quarterback of the defense" and is typically one of the biggest and most athletic players on the field and deserves much of the blockers' and running backs' attention. So, when a quarterback says "53 has the Mike" he is not saying "53 is in possession of the microphone" but instead he means "53 is very important and deserves your attention".

Now, it is important to note that when the quarterback calls out the Mike, it is not necessarily what the defense considers the Mike, nor is it necessarily even the middle linebacker.

In running plays, the offensive tackles and guards are typically responsible for blocking the defensive linemen, which leaves the center and fullback left looking for someone leftover to block. When the quarterback calls out the "Mike", it is typical that the guy who is being singled out will get a lot of attention on that play (maybe they will run right at him, or right away from him). If a fullback's defensive assignment is to "block the Mike" but not necessarily a particular player, the quarterback is basically saying "[for this particular play, and for your blocking assignment purposes] 53 is the Mike [so block him!]"

In passing plays, the Mike is called out similarly for pass blocking reasons. Often when a team is in a "max-protect" scheme (where running backs stay in the backfield to help block for the the quarterback), the Mike is called out to the running backs to let them know that they need to block him if he blitzes. The reason that this is important is that if the Mike Linebacker does not blitz, then the running back is often free to running a short passing route into the flat in support of the quarterback.

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Could you elaborate on the differences between Mike Sam Will and Jack? Maybe like one line apiece? –  corsiKa Feb 15 '12 at 23:19
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@corsiKa I originally didn't want to go into too much detail since that's not really what the question is about, but I've updated to include brief explanations of the different types of LB's –  Marcus Swope Feb 16 '12 at 0:04
    
that's perfect - just enough information to give some context, and doesn't even take up any more screen space. –  corsiKa Feb 16 '12 at 0:09
    
Order the Cliffs Notes if you can't read a few paragraphs. –  JeffO Nov 22 '12 at 4:48
    
Fantastic answer!! –  posdef Feb 5 '13 at 9:02

According to this article, up to two defensive players can have helmets with radios/microphones to communicate with their defensive coaches, starting in the 2008 NFL season. However, only one player can have a radio on the field at any given play. Each of these radio-equipped helmets is marked with a green dot.

Usage:

As with the offensive transmitters, the defensive devices will go live immediately after the play clock begins and will remain active until 15 seconds are left on the play clock or the snap of the ball, whichever comes first.

and

Two defensive players from each team will be identified and will be authorized to have receivers in their helmets, one as the primary and the other as the backup.

The primary player will have one "live" helmet on the field and a second "live" helmet stored in a secured trunk or container as a backup in case of a malfunction.

The backup player will wear his regular helmet on the field and will have a "live" helmet stored in the secured trunk or container in the event of an injury to the primary player.

The advantage of having these helmets is that the defensive coordinator can make changes to defensive calls, based on what the defensive staff sees from the offensive. This change provided defenses a counter to the quarterbacks' communications advantage. From the offense's perspective, knowing which player is making defensive audibles is probably of limited value, since the radio turns off with 15 seconds left on the play clock. The defensive player with the radio would be quite obvious - the two designated players are chosen before the game, and the active one would be wearing a helmet with the green dot and would be passing along updated defensive plays.

However, there is another possibility, as Peter King notes in a recent Sports Illustrated column. He relates an Eli Manning anecdote describing the importance of knowing who is "the mike":

When quarterbacks go to the line of scrimmage, they most often point to the foe they're using as the middle linebacker, in order for the offensive line to know which man they're going to block. The first man to the right of the "mike'' linebacker, for instance, will be blocked by the right guard, etc. And so when Manning would see Ray Lewis, number 52 on the Ravens, across the line and bark out, "52's the mike,'' Lewis would scurry to the outside of the formation and yell, "I'm the mike!'' And Ed Reed or another defender would slip into Lewis' spot and yell, "I'm the mike!'' They were taunting Manning, and it shook him up.

So according to this column, knowing which defensive player is "the mike" sets up the offensive blocking assignments, which is likely to be of more importance to the offense than knowing the identify of the defensive player with the radio-equipped helmet.

EDIT: Fixed typo in last paragraph.

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I think your second part is way more likely here. –  wax eagle Feb 15 '12 at 19:32

Each team can have one player on the field with an active radio headset.

  • By watching where that player is looking, you have gained information into what he's thinking.
  • By watching the signals of that player, you have gained information about what he might be telling his fellow defenders.
  • The defender with the mic is likely to have the most advanced knowledge of what the offense is going to do, making him the biggest threat to the play. By being aware of him, whoever is assigned to block him should know that he is the biggest threat and might have tricks up his sleeve.

For what it's worth, the defense has been doing this to the quarterback for years. Now that the defense has an announced coordinator with the bench, it allows the offense to start picking up on this too. Unfortunately, only 3 people often have an opportunity to see what the defense is doing, and two of them are usually so far away from everyone they can't communicate with them anyway.

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