Football Basics – The Defense

Football Basics Defense

The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers. The 1985 Chicago Bears. The 1971 Minnesota Vikings.

What do these teams have in common?

Besides probably rocking some questionable fashion choices off the field, they were all known for their defense. Hard-hitting, offense-frustrating, big boy, go-cry-to-yo-momma defense. Yeah, baby.

Surprise! Today we’re talking defense. This post is to help you recognize who is who on the field.

The defense is responsible for stopping the offense from scoring. What makes them so interesting is that their job is completely reactionary. What they do (formation and personnel-wise) is determined by how the opposing team’s offense lines up.

These are the dudes that make up the defense:

Defensive Lineman – The big boys lined up directly across from the offensive line. They weigh an average of about 300 lbs. These guys usually start a play with one hand on the ground (3-point stance).

  • Defensive tackle (DT) – Defensive tackles are on the inside of the defensive line. They stop running plays at the line of scrimmage and if they can break through the offensive line, have a direct shot at tackling the quarterback. Famous defensive tackles you might recognize include Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Dontari Poe.
    • Nose tackle (NT) – If you only have three guys on your defensive line, the one tackle in the middle is called a nose tackle. Generally speaking, the largest man on the defense. Vince Wilfork is a nose tackle.
  • Defensive end (DE) – These guys stand at the end of the defensive line. Their job is to rush the passer (a.k.a. quarterback) or to stop running plays from going out to the side. Famous defensive ends that you might recognize include J.J. Watt, Julius Peppers, Chandler Jones, Mario Williams, and Robert Quinn.

Defensive linemen can have jersey numbers 60-79 and 90-99.

Here’s a crazy video showing how strong these guys are:

Linebacker (LB) – Linebackers stand behind the defensive line. Yes, they stand in back of the line, hence the name. They can rush the passer, defend against runners, and also cover receivers. They’re quite busy.

  • Middle linebacker (MLB) – Also known as the inside linebacker, the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. He is often the defensive player with a mic in his helmet, receiving play calls from the sideline and communicating them to the rest of the defense, making adjustments as needed.
  • Outside linebacker (OLB) – The job of the outside linebacker varies depending on the formation. If he is lined up across from the tight end, he’s a strong outside linebacker. If he’s on other side, he’s considered a weak outside linebacker.

Linebackers can have jersey numbers 50-59 and 90-99. Famous linebackers you might recognize include Luke Kuechly, Von Miller, Jerod Mayo, and Kiko Alonso.

Training camp defense NFL

Defensive back (DB) – Also known as the secondary, these guys stand behind the linebackers or on the sides of the field. Their primary job is to defend against the passing game (wide receivers and sometimes tight ends).

  • Cornerback (CB) – What they do depends on whether they are playing zone or man-to-man coverage (post coming soon on the differences!), but at the end of the day, they try to prevent wide receivers from making catches. Famous cornerbacks you might recognize include Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib, Joe Haden, Richard Sherman, and Patrick Peterson.
  • Safety (S) – They line up in the backfield, farthest away from the ball. They are considered the last line of defense and it’s up to them to prevent “go long” big plays. Famous safeties you might recognize include Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Troy Polamalu, Devin McCourty, and Eric Berry.
    • Strong safety (SS) – He is usually the bigger safety and will line up on the strong side (the side where the offense has a tight end), and closer to the line of scrimmage.
    • Free safety (FS) – He is usually the smaller and faster of the two safeties, and will line up a little bit farther away from the line of scrimmage.

Defensive backs can have jersey numbers 20-49.

Defensive Back NFL

The primary purpose of this post is to help you identify the individual positions within the defense, but I think it’s a great time to also introduce the concept of the 3-4 and 4-3 defense. These are two of the most popular defensive formations. The first number refers to the number of defensive linemen and the second number refers to the number of linebackers. Simple, right? We’re planning on doing a more detailed post on this concept in the future, but for now, this info will get you started.

If you’re a visual person and think it would be easier to understand some of these concepts via video clip, check out this one from the Football Wife:

A few reminders – these posts will be linked in our Football for Beginners section on the site, so you can easily find them if you need them during the season. Also, at any given time, there can only be 11 players from each team on the field. That goes for offense, defense, and special teams. 

OK, there you have it. That’s the defense.

– Michelle

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