Your team’s defense is on the one-yard line. Your own one-yard line. The opposing team is poised to score easily with the ball mere feet from the end zone and a fresh set of downs. You believe in your team…but you know what’s going to happen here. The offense is going to score and then it’ll be up to your team’s offense to make up the difference.
But something miraculous happens. Three downs later, the offense hasn’t broken through the brick wall that is your defense. They opt to kick a field goal for 3 guaranteed points instead of trying to go through it again.
What just happened?
That is just the question that goal line defense answers!
The point of goal line defense, similarly to every other defense, is to keep the offense from scoring. Since the space in which this happens in quite condensed, goal line defenses load the box as much as possible to defend the goal line and force the offense to pass it in for a touchdown instead of easily running it in.
NFL teams run two main types of goal line defense (predominately – as we know, there are always exceptions to every rule). Which goal line defense a team runs usually has more to do with the offensive formation they are facing than with the defensive formation they run the rest of the game – but again: exceptions. Here’s what we can know for sure about each formation:
We know from studying the 3-4 and the 4-3 that the first number describes the number of players on the defensive line and the second number describes the number of players mid-field between the D-line and the secondary – which is a space usually occupied by linebackers. The rest of the players not denoted by the formation are defensive backs. So in a 3-4, we know there are 3 D-linemen, 4 linebackers, and 4 defensive backs (3+4+4 = 11).
The 6-2 is a little different. The first and second numbers still pertain to regions of the field: there are 6 players up front and 2 behind. But the 6 in this case doesn’t denote 6 defensive linemen in the traditional sense. Only 4 of those 6 are linemen by position; the other 2 are linebackers. See the image above to get a better understanding of what that looks like.
So in the 6-2 we have 6 men on the defensive line (4 D-linemen and 2 LB’s), 2 linebackers behind, and 3 defensive backs. The exact alignment of all these players will depend on the offensive formation, but in this example, the tackles are blocking the A gaps and the ends and linebackers on the D-line are head up over their offensive tackles (which would be 5-technique) and tight ends (8-technique). The linebackers behind the D-line are playing head up over the guards (2-technique). The defensive backs are covering the end zone (and the QB might try to throw one to the outside right corner since there’s no one in the immediate area to defend against it).
We can go back to our traditional understanding of defensive formations with the 5-3. There are 5 men on the D-line and they’re all linemen, and there are 3 men behind and they’re all linebackers. Since there are 5 on the D-line and 3 LB’s, that means we still have 3 guys in the secondary. The techniques have changed a little bit in this formation, though. See if you can figure out which technique each of the D-linemen and linebackers are playing (and refer back to this post if you need a little extra help!).
Will you see other defenses at the goal line in NFL games this season? Will the linebackers and tackles and ends be all jumbled up and aligned in different places? ABSOLUTELY! Play design is a math equation with thousands and thousands of different permutations. That’s what makes learning about it so interesting! But as long as you know these basics about goal line defense, you’ll be just fine.