Surviving the Super Bowl : The Basics of Defense

If you survived The Basics of Offense last week, you’re in luck. The Basics of Defense is much easier (the intricacies of defense, not so much – but that’s another post for another day). You’re going to breeze right through this, I know it!

First, let’s talk about who’s on the field and what they generally do:

football, defense, basics

A standard defense gets divided into two sections: the defensive front (7 players) and the defensive backs (4 players).

The Defensive Front:

Defensive Tackles (DT): The defensive tackles play on the inside of the defensive line (the line of players directly across from the offensive line). In a 3-4 system, as pictured above (3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers), the defensive tackle is the player in the middle and is called the nose tackle. Don’t worry too much about the particulars, just know that the defensive tackles are in place to stop running plays as well as contain the offensive linemen in front of them (or him, if there’s only a nose tackle in place).

Defensive Ends (DE): The defensive ends play on the outside of the defensive line. If the offense runs the ball, the defensive end on the side of the run needs to stop the run. If it’s a passing play, the defensive end will rush (run at full speed) the quarterback in an attempt to sack him (tackle him to the ground).

Linebackers: There are several types of linebackers – you can learn more about the Mike, Sam, and Will linebackers in the glossary. What’s important to know is that linebackers are the teams best tacklers; they are responsible for guarding against both running and passing plays.

The Defensive Backs ( also known as the “secondary”):

Cornerbacks: Cornerbacks generally line up near the line of scrimmage directly across from the offense’s best wide receivers. You’d be right to wonder why they are called cornerbacks and collectively known as defensive backs if they play up front with the defensive front. You’re not crazy – that’s a legit question. Here’s the deal: as soon as the ball is snapped, the cornerbacks will backpeddle and take off running toward the backfield to cover the wide receivers who are also running in that direction (toward the end zone). So cornerbacks line up in the front of the formation, but in a split second they’ll be sprinting to the backfield, waiting to make a play on a long ball.

Safeties: Safeties generally play towards the inside and can move up to the front or to the back depending on their position. The free safety (FS) usually lines up the farthest back and defends the deep middle of the field against passing plays. His goal is to break up the pass or intercept the ball. The strong safety (SS) defends against the run and the pass; he lines up closer to the front of the formation, usually covering the tight end. (General Note: whatever side of the formation the tight end lines up on is called the “strong side” because he’s an extra player added to that side, which is why the safety covering the tight end is called the “strong” safety. See, it all connects!)

Putting It All Together:

So you know who these guys are and what they do. Now it’s time to translate that to what you’ll see this weekend while watching the games.

In general, you’ll rarely see a defense as straight forward as the one diagrammed above. It’s pretty vanilla. But you can easily tell what kind of play the defense is anticipating  just by where all of the players are lined up, even if you’re unsure of who’s who in a complicated formation. It couldn’t be easier.

Are the majority of players bunched up toward the front of the line? The defense is expecting a run. Remember when we talked about 8 in the box? Anytime the defense brings more than the standard 7 players into the box (the part of the field where the linemen and linebackers play), you can be fairly sure that the defense is either planning on blitzing the quarterback or stopping a running play. (And remember – the cornerbacks don’t count. They’re outside of the box, on the edges of the formation.)

Are the majority of players spaced out in the backfield? The defense is expecting a pass. The defense usually employs specific packages for this type of situation. In a nickel package, a linebacker is taken off the field and an extra defensive back is put in (because there can only be 11 players on the field for each unit at all times, so they’d have to swap players in and out). In a dime package, two linebackers are taken out and two defensive backs are put in. The more defensive backs, the more chance the defense has of breaking up a pass or intercepting it.

And if you’re thinking either scheme leaves the defense vulnerable in one way or another – you’re right. If everyone is up front expecting a running play, the offense might be tempted to try a bomb downfield. If everyone is spread out in pass coverage, the offense might have an opportunity to run through an obvious hole up front. It’s always a gamble – but that’s what makes football so much fun to watch!

Does all of this make sense? Do you feel more comfortable watching a game now that you know what the offense and the defense do and how they’re trying to beat each other? If you have any questions, leave ’em in the comments and I’ll be happy to help!

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