football defensive positions

The Ultimate Guide: Football Defensive Positions

American football is one game that is both exciting and thrilling. The game is easier to understand for fans that know the rules and various positions. Whether in high school or college, football remains the most loved game. 

It’s a game where different players work together towards winning the game. The defense is a great part of football, with the responsibility of tackling and defending. If you’re looking to understand football fully, then you must first understand the football defensive positions.

Different defensive players take different positions and roles. They help shut down offenses and secure excellent field positions for turnovers. There are 11 defensive positions in football. Each team will field a different number of players in the positions based on their running formation.

Join me below as I break down the different defensive positions in football and their roles.

What Are the Defensive Football Positions?

In this section, I’ll discuss nine important football positions in football every player and fan should know. 

Each defensive position sees a defender taking specific responsibilities. Overall, the defense is divided into three positions. These are the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary. 

Read on below to learn the positions and roles.

Defensive Line

The defensive line makes up a great part of the defensive positions in football. It’s a position where a group of players lines up close to the line of scrimmage.

The main role of the defensive line is to attack and counter the offensive line of the opposing team. The defensive line comprises the defensive tackles, defensive ends, and nose tackle.

Defensive Tackles

Defensive tackles line in the middle of the formation, to the right and left. In a football game, there are two defensive tackles. These are the left and right defensive tackles.

defense stopping player carrying the football

Depending on the offense being run, defensive tackles line up over the offense’s tackles and guards. However, defensive tackles can shift across and around to different positions, but in the same area.

The main role of defensive tackles is to stop the offensive from running the ball. But most defensive tackles do more than block the offense. They can also rush and pressure the quarterback.

Overall, defensive tackles are usually the biggest players on the field. Their big physicality allows them to take several offensive players at once. They jam the offensive tackles and keep them off the linebackers inside.

In some defensive formations, the defensive tackles rely on one defensive tackle position, called the nose guard. The nose guards lines directly across the ball.  He faces the offensive center nose-to-nose, hence the name nose guard.

A nose guard is common in the 3-4 defense formation. But, most defenses feature the left and right defensive tackles. In a few scenarios, some defenses can employ a secondary tackle called the ‘under tackle’ who is faster than the nose tackle.

Nose guards are usually the bigger and stronger players, but also faster. On the snap, nose guards cover gaps on one of the sides in the center.

On every running play, the offense has holes for the ball carrier to run. It’s up to the defensive tackles to know where the offense is running and plug these holes.

Defensive Ends

Next, we have the defensive ends, where two players line up at the end of the defensive line. These are players on the outside of the defensive tackles.

Defensive ends protect the outer edges of the line of scrimmage. They rush passers and stop running plays on the other edges, from the line of scrimmage. They play a crucial role, referred to as containment.

There are two defensive ends on the right and left sides. The right-hand defensive end is the fastest since that’s the right-hand quarterback’s blind side.

By lining up on the end of the defensive line, they can see the quarterback before he throws the ball. Their main role is to attack and tackle the quarterback before he throws the ball.

A defensive end is one of the best positions in football, with players in this position among the best paid. However, on rushing plays, they need to contain the outer sides of the field.

They usually tend to funnel the offensive players to the middle of the field, where they’re easily tackled. On a few occasions, some defensive ends can stop runs.

Overall, defensive ends need to have evasive skills if they’re to evade blockers. Some of the best defensive ends in NFL history include great names like Michael Strahan and JJ Watt

In the current modern football, defense ends are quite fast and athletic. They’re also slightly taller and faster than nose tackles and defensive tackles.

It’s a position that is quite hard to teach at the beginner level. Players require a lot of strength, speed, and discipline.

Overall, a defensive end position is one that requires nurturing through skills. It requires explosiveness which is a crucial skill.


Next, we have the linebackers position located in the defensive backfield. However, they remain close to the line of scrimmage.

defense and offense team at the line of scrimmage

Linebackers play a vital role depending on the type of play the offense is running. They can work as pass rushers or as an extra defender.  They also have the freedom to run a blitz at the quarterback and cause a sack.

Linebackers position themselves five to seven yards from the ball. They take a major role in the ran-and-pass defense.

It’s a position that’s split further into outside linebackers and inside linebackers. Inside linebackers are also called middle linebackers. They are called the defense quarterbacks.

Depending on the defense formation a team is running, there will be three or four linebackers. They make up part of the front defense seven, a combination of linebackers and defensive linemen.

Let’s break down the different linebacker positions below.

Middle Linebackers

First, we have the middle linebackers, who are the defense quarterbacks. They’re the inside linebackers and play a crucial role in running the game.

In most defense formations, there are usually one or two middle linebackers. They’re the ones that lead to team tackles.

In the NFL, middle linebackers send play calls in what we call audibles. The audibles are sent to the rest of the defense, helping lead the team in defense.

One inside linebacker in the NFL usually has a radio helmet. The radio allows him to hear play calls from the coach and relay the same to the rest of the defense.

You’ll see inside linebackers on rushing plays running forward to the line of scrimmage. Here, they tackle ball carriers before they get to the defensive line.

However, their roles are different in passing plays. Here, they play zone or man coverage, depending on the offense’s play. They usually cover zones close to where play starts.

Overall, middle linebackers focus more on stopping run plays. They’re also wide receivers more than rushing to attack quarterbacks. Some of the famous middle linebackers in the NFL include Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis.

Left/Right  Linebackers

Next, we have the left/right linebackers, who are the outside linebackers. These are split as the left and right linebackers. But some teams use them as the strong-side and weak-side linebackers.

The two make half of the linebacker position. They play a crucial role in rushing at the quarterback. In most plays, the left and right linebackers line up at least five to seven yards from the line of scrimmage.

They usually tend to have a lot of sacks focusing more on pass rushing. The outside linebackers act as the sole pass rusher in most defensive formations.

player tackles offense

You’ll see them line up directly to the ball and attempt to tackle the quarterback before he throws the ball. Sometimes, you’ll hear commentators refer to them as edge defenders.

However, the specific roles of outside linebackers vary depending on the defensive formation. In some formations, they line up more as traditional linebackers tackling running plays. They do a similar job as inside linebackers.

They can also take roles of pass coverage on passing plays. When they do that, they can offer man coverage or zone coverage.

Some of the greatest NFL outside linebackers to grace the game include names like Derrick Brooks and Lawrence Taylor.


Last on the defensive formation is the secondary position. Secondaries are a group of players positioned in the backfield.

These are usually the deepest players in the field, tasked with stopping long passes. In a football game, safeties are usually lined furthest from the line of scrimmage.

In the secondary, we have cornerbacks and safeties. Let’s dig deep and learn more about these two positions.


First on the secondary are cornerbacks who start on or near the scrimmage line. They play a major role in protecting against the passing routes down in the backfield.

Cornerbacks help stop the opposing team’s wide receivers. They catch passes from the quarterbacks intended for the wide receivers.

On all defensive formations, cornerbacks line up directly over the wide receivers. Cornerbacks can play zone coverage or man coverage depending on the opposing team.

In zone coverage, a cornerback will be assigned to a specific wide receiver. He will mark and follow the receiver everywhere on the field to ensure he doesn’t catch and run a pass.

But in zone coverage, a cornerback is assigned a specific area within the backfield to mark. It’s up to the cornerback to ensure no wide receiver catches a pass within the zone.

Overall, the main responsibility of a cornerback is to prevent a wide receiver from catching the ball in the backfield. Cornerbacks will try and block wide receivers while also making tackles on rushing plays.

They play a bigger role in pass defense than in run defenses. There are usually two cornerbacks in a team. They usually line up directly over the wide receivers on both sides of the field.

But, some teams can add a third cornerback, depending on the opposition play. This usually happens when they try to stop the opposition from passing. In such cases, the third cornerback is called a nickel corner and plays a very similar role to a cornerback.

The NFL has seen some great cornerbacks. Some of the greatest names include Deion Sanders and Darelle Revis.


Lastly, we have the two safeties that line deep in the backfield. This is free safety and strong safety.

football player wearing red jersey in position at the start of a game

As the name suggests, the stronger safety lines up facing the side with more offensive players. Strong safety is tasked with protecting one side of the backfield from long passes. But, they can also make tackles when offenses play runs.

A strong safety defends against the ball carrier and lines up on the strong side of the pitch.

A free safety will line up on the opposite side, but further back from the ball. He’s the only player on the field lining furthest from the ball. He’s usually the last man in the defense.

Free safeties play a major role in protecting against passing plays. They need to ensure the wide receiver doesn’t catch the ball from the quarterback. In addition, free safeties need to tackle running backs and wide receivers.

They spend most of their time in pass coverage and end up making a lot of interceptions. In some cases, free safeties can line up as hybrid linebackers. 

Overall, there’s only one strong safety and one free safety. Some of the greatest safeties in the NFL include names like Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed.

How Does The Defense Work In Football?

A defense in football works together as a unit to help stop the offense from advancing and making passes. Due to their roles, defensive players are usually strong and physically big. But they also need speed and brute force.

A defense works by stopping the ball and running from the opposition team. When the opposition has the ball, it’s up to the defense to stop them and take the ball away.

The defense works by tackling and forcing turnovers. Different defensive players are tasked with specific roles, as discussed above. With each defensive player taking a specific responsibility, the defense works as a unit to stop the offense from scoring.

They can get the ball through interceptions or a fumble. Depending on the opponent’s offensive formation, they can play a run or pass defense. They line up before a snap and have the inside linebacker call the play.

Depending on what the offense does, the defense can react accordingly and help stop the offense. Overall, defenses work by having different defensive formations to suit the opponent they’re facing.

The Best NFL Defensive Players

Over the years, the NFL has experienced some great names on the defense. Do you know some of the best NFL defensive players? 

Below, I’ll discuss some of the leading and best NFL defensive players in history.

football players defense and offense in action

1. Reggie White

Reggie White is another exceptional defensive tackle and end. He was a dominant force both from the outside and inside line. When he entered the league in 1985, the NFC boasted a massive ten Pro Bowl calibers.

He would go on and achieve 13 sacks in 13 games which were barely noticed. He made a total of 57 sacks in 44 games, making him one of the best defensive tackles.

2. Lawrence Taylor

Nobody would do it better as an outside linebacker than Lawrence Taylor. While there are other great names like JJ Watt, Lawrence Taylor tops the list. In his first two seasons in the NFL, nobody knew how to mark him. He would be named the best defensive player of the season for two consecutive seasons.

In 1983 when he was approaching his down years, he suffered injuries that forced him to play as a linebacker. He would go on to perform beyond exceptions, producing two double-digit sacks in the next seven years.

Lawrence was a legendary linebacker. He would have his best year in 1986 when he accumulated a total of 20.5 sacks. In the same year, he helped the Giants into their first-ever Super Bowl final.

3. Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis is also known as one of the best linebackers of all time, winning two Super Bowls with Baltimore. Over 50 ESPN experts agree that Lewis is the best linebacker of all time.

He’s regarded as one of the best, with excellent football intelligence, instincts, and game execution. Playing for over 17 years with the Ravens, Lewis was a  12-time Pro Bowler.

4. Deion Sanders

Deion Sander is our fourth pick, but perhaps one of the greatest defensive players in the NFL. He’s one of the best cover corners in the NFL. Commentators will always refer to the Deion Prime Time when Sanders edged out Nick for the spot.

In games, quarterbacks would totally avoid him. He had a record of 19 return touchdowns, which was broken in 2014. That was a massive 19 punts, off kicks, interceptions, and fumbles.

5. Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald is currently one of the best NFL defensive players.  NFL players rank him as the second-best defensive player that can’t be blocked. Donald has accomplished a lot in eight seasons in the NFL, making him one of the best defensive players.

Currently, he remains the most dominant player in the league. He also got the LVI MVP bowl award. Time will only tell how much he’ll achieve over the years.

What Is The Difference Between Defense and Offense In Football

The difference between the defense and offense in football is ball possession. The team with the ball is the offense, while the one trying to stop the run and take the ball is the defense.

offense and defense players in american football

Teams play offense only when they have the ball and defense when they don’t have the ball. In football, the quarterback is the key to the offense passing the ball and making the moves.

At any given time, each team has 11 players on the field. Before play starts, seven players on the offense must line up on the line of scrimmage while the other four lines are in the backfield.

Either player can change from offense to defensive, depending on which team has the ball. The roles of the different positions change depending on whether the team is on the defense or offense.

For example, the defense can quickly turn into the offense during interceptions and score points.

There are jersey numbers in the NFL to indicate the players’ positions and their roles. A lineman will wear jersey numbers from 59 to 79.  However, the NFL changed its numbering in 2021, allowing for a wider position range for most positions.

Football Defensive Positions FAQs

What Is The Hardest Position In Football

The cornerback position is considered the toughest position in football. Cornerbacks are usually the smallest players on the field but are required to be athletic.

It’s a physically demanding position but one that also requires great discipline and speed.

Who Leads The Defense In Football?

The middle linebacker leads the defense and is in charge of relaying plays. He has a radio helmet and gets calls from the coaching setup. He then communicates with the rest of the defense, relaying the plays to take.

What Is the Most Important Defensive Position In Football

The middle linebacker is the most important defensive position in football. Traditionally, a middle linebacker is the heart, soul, and mind of the defense. Additionally, the middle linebacker has the biggest task of getting to the ball carrier.


There you go! Now you know the various defensive positions in football and their specific roles. Football is an exciting game with offensive and defensive sides. While the offensive side with the ball is a little exciting since it can score, the defensive side is equally important.

The defensive players help stop the offense and can sometimes turn defensive into offensive when they cause turnovers. Understanding the various defensive positions and their roles is essential to understanding the game of football.

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