This diagram shows you how a typical 3-4 defense lines up with a nose tackle flanked by 2 defensive ends would look.  Note that the lineman behind them are 4 across.  So there are 3 in front, 4 in the back. Opposite would be true in a 4-3 scheme.

Gridiron Girl’s Guide to Football: Defensive Positions

Now that we are getting into defensive positions things are going to start to get a little more  complicated.

Before we begin, understand that each defensive has a formation and a scheme for stopping the run or the pass.  There is a huge amount of variation in the schemes, and we will dive into that in a later lesson.  I just want to throw out that most NFL defenses are basically either running a 3-4 or a 4-3.  For a really quick reference, consider this:

Three defensive linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs make the 3-4 formation.  Some examples of teams that run the 3-4 are: Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers.

Four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs make the 4-3 formation.  Some examples of teams that run the 4-3 defense are: Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants.

Alright. Let’s do this.  Refer to my diagrams throughout.

Defensive End- In the simplest of terms, the defensive end is the defender at each end of the defensive line.  Their job is to contain, meaning that no one should get outside of them.

In a running play, their job is to run forward a few steps and make sure that the running back cannot outside of them and into the territory of the safety and cornerback.  They will do this by trying to divert the runner into the middle where all of the lineman and linebackers are going at each other, stopping them with all of the bodies.  But really, they want a sack. A sack is where it’s at.

In a passing play, their job is to get to the quarterback as soon as possible and interrupt the passing play.  They can tackle him (sack), block the pass (swat), cause a fumble or just give the quarterback general accuracy problems.

Defensive ends also need to shed tackles, tackle backs/receivers carrying the ball and defend against screen passes.

Not to confuse you further, but here is where it gets very tricky: 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends will have slightly different physical types:

As a general rule, Defensive Ends usually need to be fast and agile (as they have to beat players to the ends of the field or run towards to the QB) and are smaller than the defensive tackles, which really isn’t saying much because they are still pretty huge dudes.  But in a 3-4 defense, defensive ends are used primarily to stop the run are therefore bigger than “traditional” defensive ends. More and more defenses are adopting the 3-4 scheme and the prototypical defensive end is getting larger.

Side note: Defensive ends will sit a three or two point stance.  Their fingers will be touching the ground.

Example: Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings; Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears.

Defensive Tackle- Much like the defensive end, defensive tackles will be asked to do several different things depending on the scheme.  For now, let’s start simple in understanding what they do. A defensive tackle usually lines up opposite of the offensive guards at the line of scrimmage. They can be asked to do one of the following:

  1. Holding their position and using their size and strength to stop other players.
  2. Running to a gap between two offensive lineman to disrupt a play.
  3. Disrupt a quarterback (or the pass) in a passing play.
  4. Drop into zoe coverage when called for.

In a 3-4 defensive, there is one DT and he is called the nose tackle.  In a 4-3, there is no nose tackle, there is a right and left tackle. Just keep that in mind when you see certain rosters listing positions.

B.J. Raji is a great example of a 3-4 nose tackle. (Photo c/o Bleacher Report).

  • Nose Tackle (also called a Nose guard)- The nose guard aligns himself opposite the opponents center in what is called the “0- technique” position.  It is rather complicated to explain all of the things that the nose can do at this level, so I will try to break it down by saying they are usually flanked by two men on either side and their promary job is to absorb tackles (and double-teaming opponents) so that other defenders can get to the quarterback or the runner.  Example: Kris Jenkins, New York Jets; B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers.

This diagram shows you how a typical 3-4 defense lines up with a nose tackle flanked by 2 defensive ends would look. Note that the lineman behind them are 4 across. So there are 3 in front, 4 in the back. Opposite would be true in a 4-3 scheme.

Defensive tackles are typically the largest and the strongest of all the defensive positions.  I mean NO offense to any professional football players but some of the “bigger” guys in the NFL typically come to mind when we are talking about this position.  I will put it this way: Some of them are up around 400 pounds.

Examples of Defensive Tackles: Albert Haynesworth (now of the New England Patriots), Cullen Jenkins; Philadelphia Eagles.

Linebacker- Linebackers are defensive players that line up behind the lineman (which is the term that encompasses both the DE and DT).

Lineman are sub-divided into the following types:

  • Middle Linebacker- Middle Linebacker is generally referred to as the quarterback of the defense.  It is fair title as they are the play callers for the defense by reading opposing offenses formations and plays and then calling coverages for the defense accordingly.  In addition to being the play caller, the middle linebacker can tackle, blitz, drop back in coverage or spy the QB (which basically means he is following the quarterback around the field).  (If you don’t know what any of this means, don’t worry. You soon will!) Ex. Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens.
  • Outside linebackers- Outside linebackers will contain everything on the “outside” and try to direct it towards the middle where there are more men and a greater chance of stopping the play.

-Strongside Linebacker (one type of Outside Linebacker)-  The strongside LB will line-up against the stronger side of the opposing offense, which is usually across from the tight end.  He is also usually the strongest of all the linebackers so the name fits but he also needs to be quick.

This diagram of a 4-3 defense shows you how the lineman set up against the opposing offense. It will hopefully visually explain the strong/weakside linebacker placement. The strongside linebacker is up against the tight end in this defense scheme. Note that because it is a 4-3 defense, there are two defensive tackles, as opposed to a nose tackle.

-Weakside Linebacker (another type of Outside Linebacker)- The weakside linebacker needs be the quickest of all the linebackers because he is darting around. He is called the weakside because he is not covering the strong side of the offense.  So that name fits, too!  The weakside is generally involved in stopping the pass more than the run.

  • Not to confuse you further but some formations will not use a strong or weak side linebacker, they will just designate a lineman to play to to the right or left/ inside or outside.  See the diagram.

Side note: Linebackers will get into a two point stance which is an upright position. Look for that.

Examples of linebackers: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers; James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers; Bart Scott, New York Jets.

The next 2 defensive positions are considered the “secondary”. The secondary is primarily used to defend the pass, which is why they are further back towards the end zone.

Cornerback- Cornerbacks are responsible for covering wide receivers.  They will either try to swat away the ball, tackle the receiver or intercept the pass. If the offense is using a running play, they will try to contain the runner to the middle of the field.  There are all sorts of coverages that a quarterback will be asked to run but we will touch more on that later.

Cornerbacks have to be very fast and agile. They are some of the most superior athletes on the field.  To sum it up as quickly as I can, they have to be able to do everything that all of the other defenders do and pretty much everything a receiver can do.  In addition to that, they must be able to read the quarterback and where he is going to throw. That’s a big job. For that reason, the cornerback is one of the higher profile positions on the defense.  You may have heard a lot recently about a guy named Nnamdi Asomugha who was the most sought after free-agent this year.  And it’s easy to see why. Not only is he extremely skilled and important to the defense but the NFL  is increasingly becoming a pass first league, making cornerbacks even MORE valuable.

Nnamdi, along with Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, are both referred to as “shutdown corners”.  The earned this title because they shut down their entire side of the field. Definitely worth the money for an NFL team.

Examples: Nnamdi Asomugha, Philadelphia Eagles; Darrelle Revis, New York Jets; Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers.

Safety- Safeties are defensive backs that have similar responsibilities to a corner, only they are on the interior of the field (see above diagram).  They get their name because they are the “last line of defense” against the pass.  They have to be good tacklers to get guys down and prevent them from scoring or nearly scoring.

Safeties are also divided into categories: Strong and free. The duties will vary depending on the scheme. I know what you’re thinking..not again!

-Strong Safety- These guys are stronger and and larger but that is not why they gets this name. Remember that whole strongside linebacker thing? Well it’s back. The strong side lines up with the strong side of the opposing offense (he will line up opposite a tight end).  Strong safeties are responsible for stopping the pass and the run so they are a sort of hybrid position.  Example: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers.

-Free Safety- The Free Safety has to be faster than the strong safety and usually tends to be a little smaller.  The free safety gets his name because, for the most part, he is running “free” to mirror the quarterback (in man coverage).  The free safety is also available for double coverage where it is needed.  These guys have got to know how to read the quarterback and anticipate what is coming as well as adapt to what’s going on very quickly. The quarterback will try to trick them by calling plays that will bring them up closer and give receivers an advantage.  Example: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens.

Defensive Backs- Corners and Safeties are technically defensive backs but some other schemes will call for a 5th or 6th defensive back.

-Nickelback- When the scheme calls for one more DB it is called a nickel defense. The additional DB is called the nickelback.  The nickelback will take place of a lineman or a linebacker, depending on the defense. Nickels are used against a pass, when the opposing defense is going to run 4+ receiver sets (the Packers do this a lot).  Example: Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers.

-Dimeback- When two extra DBS are needed it is called a dime package.  When they do this, they will bring in the nickel to replace a lineman/linebacker and then they will bring in the dime.  The dimeback is usually the 3rd corner on the roster. They would replace a linebacker to defend against the pass.


I know this was a lot of information to cover and it was probably a bit confusing. So how about this? You can post questions below and I can answer them so that all of the readers can learn.  I will be getting more into defensive schemes next week so you can better understand all of this.  Enjoy!


One thought on “Gridiron Girl’s Guide to Football: Defensive Positions

  1. `britt says:

    trying very hard to expand my knowledge of football before this season… a little late i know… this is very confusing, and advice?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *