Very few sports have such a strict distinction between attack and defense as American Football. Although an American Football team will only have 11 players on the field at any time, the nature of the game (with unlimited substitutions) is such that the ‘defensive team’ will bear no relation to the ‘offensive team’ at college or professional levels.
The reasoning is simple – the attributes required to excel in defense differ dramatically to those in offense, particularly at a physical level. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a defensive line comprises a number of different positions to the offensive line, all with the fundamental aim of stopping the opposition’s attacks or, better still, turning over the ball for the offensive line.
Basics of the defensive line
Naturally, the defensive line comes into play when the team is not in possession of the ball. At a rudimentary level, the defensive line’s preparation is easy to understand – all players line up on the line of scrimmage in front of the opposition’s offensive line and attempt to counter their attacks.
As mentioned previously, one definitive conclusion is regaining possession of the ball, either through an intercepted pass or a fumble. However, the defensive line also wages a war of attrition, with the ultimate goal being a 4th down for the opposition’s offensive line (meaning they must reach the ten yard mark from where the first down marker was) teams will generally punt in this situation.
To some extent, the idea of defined positions in the defensive line is a misnomer, as any defensive player is allowed to perform any legal action during the play. However, if you look at the starting positions of a defensive line at professional level today, you can identify five types of player:
- Defensive End (DE) – There are two defensive ends in the line, unsurprisingly bookending the defensive phalanx. They respectively face the Offensive Guard and the Tight End, as well as the two Offensive Tackles. They represent a key part of the line, stopping runs from the attackers on the outer edges and also attempting to break the line and sack the quarterback. The distinction between the left and the right side is connected to the quarterback – the quicker of the two DEs will be on the quarterback’s blind side.
- Defensive Tackle (DT) – Situated between the two Defensive Ends, the Defensive Tackles simultaneously attempt two things. Firstly, and fundamentally, they have to stop the offensive line from putting a running game into practice. However, if they can break through the offensive linemen, they can potentially rush the passer and force a mistake. It is not that uncommon for a team to gamble on one or three Defensive Tackles, rather than the standard two.
- Linebacker (LB) – Acting as the second line of defense behind the main phalanx, the Linebackers have a greater degree of freedom. There can be anything from two to four LBs, with particular types – the strongside LB (opposes the Tight End), the middle LB (adapts to the play accordingly) and the weakside LB (provides pace and athleticism).
- Cornerback (CB) – Situated on the flanks of the line, wide even of the Defensive Ends, the Cornerbacks (of which there are two) have perhaps the most easily defined role. They must follow the offense’s wide receivers and stop any passes.
- Safety (SS/FS) – Right at the back of the line, there are two types of Safety – the Strong Safety and the Free Safety. The distinction is one of physique, with the FS more mobile and therefore better able to assist the Cornerbacks in case of a long pass, and the SS better able to deal with a running game.
It is worth remembering that there are a number of possible formations, which necessarily adjust to deal with the offensive line’s strengths. For example, a defensive line may have four LBs at the expense of a lineman.
Notable Defensive Line players
- Ray Nitschke – Linebacker (Green Bay Packers, 1958-72)
- Lawrence Taylor – Linebacker (New York Giants, 1981-93)
- Reggie White – Defensive End (Philadelphia Eagles, 1985-92, Green Bay Packers, 1993-98)
- Jack Youngblood – Defensive End (Los Angeles Rams, 1971-84)
- Dick Lane – Cornerback (Los Angeles Rams, 1952-53, Chicago Cardinals, 1954-59, Detroit Lions, 1960-65)
- Darrell Green – Cornerback (Washington Redskins, 1983-2002)
- Jack Tatum – Safety (Oakland Raiders, 1971-79)