O'HARA: Whitehead welcomes demands of playing middle linebacker

Posted Aug 1, 2016

Tahir Whitehead knows the historical significance of playing middle linebacker in the NFC North, and the responsibilities and demands that go with it.

Tahir Whitehead knows the historical significance of playing middle linebacker for one of the four teams that make up the NFC North, and the responsibilities and demands that go with it.

Whitehead welcomes all of it – personality, leadership, performance -- as he takes over as the full-time middle linebacker in his fifth season with the Detroit Lions.

Whitehead’s introduction to the royal lineage of middle linebackers came long after Joe Schmidt of the Lions, Bill George and Dick Butkus of the Bears and Ray Nitschke of the Packers battered offensive players into submission on their way to earning places in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The “Black and Blue Division” that included the Vikings had cemented its status in pro football lore before Whitehead strapped on a helmet for the first time, but he is well aware that he plays a position that has a special meaning attached to it.

Middle linebackers have been the face of defenses since the position was invented and developed by George and Schmidt in the 1950s.

“You know I’ve been playing football since I was nine, right?” Whitehead said when asked about the history of his position. “I know exactly what the ‘Mike’ means on the defense. You’re the quarterback on the defense.

“You’ve got to get the job done. You’re out there, you’re running the show. To me, that’s exactly what the ‘Mike’ means. I’m the one getting the calls, making the calls. I’ve got to run the show.

“Before the old Black and Blue Division and all that, I just know what it means to be the ‘Mike.’ You’ve got to bring the noise. That’s the history of the division. It’s a tough division. It comes with the territory.”

Butkus once expanded the territory in a game against the Lions at old Wrigley Field, where the Bears played their home games. Butkus chased Lions running back Altie Taylor out of bounds. Not content with where the play ended, Butkus continued pursuing Taylor through the bench area and all the way to the brick walls surrounding the playing field before giving up.

Whitehead won’t go that far, but he’s not bashful about wanting to inflict punishment – legally – rather than take it. In the give and take of physical combat, it’s better to give.

“You play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Whitehead said.

How’s that?

“When I hit a player, I try to run through him,” Whitehead said. “I’m not trying to run into him.”

Message received.

Circumstances and opportunity have kept Whitehead waiting to play the middle since being drafted in the fifth round out of Temple in 2012.

Stephen Tulloch was the incumbent middle linebacker when Whitehead arrived. For his first two seasons Whitehead was primarily a special-teams player and backup at linebacker, playing 30 of 32 games without a start.

Whitehead took over in the middle when Tulloch went down with a knee injury in Game 3 of the 2014 season. He started the rest of the season on a defense that ranked second in the league overall and first against the run.

With Tulloch back last year, Whitehead was relegated to part-time starter status. He started eight of the 16 games, all of them at outside linebacker.

Whitehead re-signed with the Lions this year early in free agency with the understanding that he’d be back in the middle with Tulloch’s eventual departure. It was a natural progression, based on Whitehead’s overall development.

“He’s one of those guys that played various positions for us early on, so he’s learned the defense from multiple positions,” said head coach Jim Caldwell. “He has a really good grasp of it. He’s one of the guys that probably has more snaps under his belt than anybody with that group.”

Whitehead has never taken anything for granted, but knowing he can focus on playing the middle added something to his offseason workouts.

“It means a great deal, just to know it’s the position I’m going to be playing,” he said. “That’s been my focus this offseason – to really grind as hard as I’ve ever grinded before to be able to come in prepared both physically and mentally to get the job done.”