Defensive Positions in Football: A Complete Guide


Football is one of America’s most popular sports, whether on the high school, college, or professional levels.  Football is not the easiest sport to understand, especially if you have never played it before. If you have played it, you understand the passion and excitement around the sport of football.

Football has been under some scrutiny because of the safety of the sport.  Some of this is true, especially at the professional levels. Over the past 10 years, however, through research and coaching in new ways, football popularity has risen back and is taking off again.

Defense is an important part of the game, where the players are required to tackle and defend the opposing team’s offense.  Football is a game that requires multiple people working as one to accomplish a common goal. There have been many great defensive players over the years at the professional level.

In this article, we will discuss the different positions of a defense, ver specific to the requirements that are necessary and the skill development that is required for each position.  We will also discuss a couple different defenses as well.

What are the 11 Defensive Football Positions?

The 11 positions on defense are the following: Nose guard, defensive tackle, defensive end(2), inside linebacker(2), outside linebacker(2), cornerback(2), and safety.  We will discuss the different positions on defense, in a pretty simplistic manner.  

Some positions have repeats, like linebacker and cornerback.  In a more specific manner, these positions that have two actually will perform different tasks, but we will talk more from a physical standpoint as we discuss these positions.

1 – Nose Guard

The nose guard is typically lined up either over the center directly or shaded on his shoulder. The nose guard is typically responsible for the first gap between the center and guard just passed where the football is snapped.

A nose guard is considered a defense of lineman and is usually a bigger, stronger tape player. The nose guard needs to be strong but also quick as many times there are two blockers trying to keep him out of the backfield.

Upon the snap of the ball the nose guard will typically take one of the gaps on one side of the center. His job is to occupy the gap and eventually work his way to the ball carrier. If it is a pass, the nose guard is responsible for attacking the quarterback. 

Skill Development: The nose guard needs strength, so the weight room is very important. Lower body workouts are crucial for this position. This player needs strength, speed, and a low center of gravity.

2 – Defensive Tackle

A defense of tackle is typically lined up over the offenses guard or tackle, depending on the type of defense that is being run. The defense of tackle position is very similar to the nose guard position, as this player will be a run to thunder as well as a pass rusher.

A defense of tackle is typically slightly bigger than a nose guard, and is responsible for one of the gaps on the defense. Typically a defense of tackle will line up to the offenses strength, usually determined by a tight end or an excessive number of receivers to one side of the ball.

Both strength and speed are important for a defense of tackle, however, a defense of tackle maybe one of the slower players on the field. The defense of tackle is typically the biggest defender on the defense as well. Strength and size are crucial for this position.

Skill Development: similar to a nose guard, a defense of tackle needs strength and speed. The weight room is extremely important for this position, and lower body will be the focal point of strength development. Quick feet are also important.

3 – Defensive End 

Typically there are two defensive ends on the defense. For the most part they are interchangeable, unless the offense is in a particular formation. This formation would involve a tight end, and then the position of defense of end changes slightly.

In general a defense van is typically slightly taller than a nose guard or a defense of tackle, and slightly faster. At the professional level, defense of ends have become very, very athletic. Defense of ends are involved in defending the run and the pass.

Defense of ends are responsible for contain, which at the youth level can be very difficult to coach. This position requires a lot of discipline, strength, speed, and athleticism.

Skill Development: A defense of our needs to be strong, so the weight room is crucial for this position. More so than a defense of tackle or a nose guard, explosiveness is a vital skill at this position.

4 – Inside Linebackers 

Inside linebackers are many times considered the heart of a defense. Inside linebackers are as tough as they come as far as football goes. This position requires strength, speed, athleticism, and mental fortitude.

Linebackers are required to make most of the tackles on defense. Football is a great sport because it allows 11 players to play at a time, all doing their own job, for the betterment of the team. This goes for a defense as well. If everyone does their job, it will free up a linebacker to make a tackle.

Many times linebackers are in charge of the defense. They will typically call out most of the adjustments and alignment that are required in every defense. Based on what the offense is lined up in, the defense must adjust, and most defenses allow their linebackers to be in charge of these adjustments.

Linebackers are typically the most physical players on a defense. They are big, strong, and fast.  Linebackers are typically responsible for stopping the run, but are also involved in the pass defensive game plan as well.

Skill Development: The skills required for linebacker might be the most vast requirements of any position on defense. A linebacker must be strong, so the weight room is crucial, but also needs to have quickness as they will run from sideline to sideline.

5 – Outside linebackers

Outside linebackers are considered second level players, as they are on the same level as an inside linebacker. Typically outside linebackers can be slightly smaller than inside linebackers.

Outside linebackers are a hybrid position of a linebacker and a defense of back. Outside linebackers must be athletic and fast. Outside linebackers are involved in the run game as well as the pass game so their ability to be physical and athletic is crucial. 

Outside linebackers have the responsibility of adjusting to whiten often stars. This may be one of the most difficult positions because of all of the adjustments required.

Skill Development:  outside linebackers need to be strong and quick. Leverage is a key attribute for all outside linebackers. Athleticism is extremely important, and quickness and foot development is crucial in playing this position. 

6 – Cornerback

There are always two cornerbacks on defense. A cornerback is required to be involved mostly in stopping the pass from the opposing office. Quarterbacks are typically lined up over the most outside receiver, and are responsible for either covering him man-to-man, or covering an area, trying to defend a pass.

Cornerbacks are responsible mostly for pass, but can get involved in defending the run. They are the least likely to be involved in stopping the run, but if you find one that does both very well, you are in luck.

Cornerbacks are typically the fastest group of defenders. They must be able to run, jump, and defend passes. Good hands are also a requirement of a defense of back.

Skill Development: cornerbacks need to be fast and athletic. In order to play cornerback you should work on being quick and athletic. Having the ability to change directions is extremely important.

7 – Safety

A safety is very similar to a cornerback. The safety is responsible for the funding passes in the secondary. Typically a safety is considered like a quarterback of the defense, with the ability to make adjustments and calls from his position.

The safety many times is the last line of defense against an offense that is running the ball. His role in the run defense part of the game is not as vital as many of the other positions on defense. 

A safety must be athletic and strong, but not as strong as most of the other positions on defense. The safety requires speed and athleticism and must be very smart. 

Skill Development: Hey safety must have good feet and be very quick to react to the Football. The ability to change directions is crucial for this position. Strength is also important, but speed and athleticism are absolutely crucial. 

Related Questions…

What Position Requires the Most Thinking?

Although every position on the defense is actually fairly complicated, probably the most complicated position is an outside linebacker. The outside linebacker must be able to adjust on the fly, but he is responsible to be good at stopping the run and the pass, which makes it a very difficult position to play. 

Can a Defense Score Points?

The defense can score points, usually by an interception returned for a touchdown. Another way to score would be if the offense formals and the defense recovers and returns it all the way for a touchdown.

The third and final way that a defense can score, and definitely the most rare scoring opportunity, as a safety. A safety is when the opposing offense is tackled in their own Endzone. This score is worth two points. 

When Can the Defense Move?

The defense can technically move whenever they want. The rule, however, is that the defense cannot cross the ball before the offense moves the ball.

If you watch a football game, you will notice that most of the guys at linebacker or in the second day are moving before the ball is snapped quite a bit.

All Time Greats at Each Position

Nose Guard: Curley Culp and Bill Willis. Culp played for the Oilers and Willis played for the Browns. What made these two so great is their ability to not only occupy a gap, but also run to the football and make tackles. 

Defensive Tackle: Alan Page and Joe Greene Are two of the best to ever played defensive tackle. They were relentless, strong, and disrupted most offenses. They were very difficult to block. 

Defensive End: Reggie White and Bruce Smith were two of the best defensive ends to ever play the game. These two players had the ability to disrupt offenses, and ended up having more sex than most defensive ends all time. 

Linebacker: Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis Revolutionize the game. They are two of the most relentless players to ever play defense. They had both size, speed and mental fortitude that took them to the next level.

Cornerback: Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson we’re both amazing pass coverage corners. They could run with the best receivers and some games shut them down. Teams would avoid throwing to their side, which is the ultimate compliment for a cornerback. 

Safety: There aren’t too many tougher than Ronnie Lott. He was known for his toughness and his athleticism. For some, he is considered the best defensive back to ever play the game.  His relentless pursuit of the football and his ability to fly to the ball makes him possibly the best ever in the secondary.

Final Thoughts

The game of football is complicated for many, but once you understand how people line up and what they are responsible for, the game becomes easier.  Football is a game of passion and physicality and defense is no different.

Skill development is crucial for every position and each player has a different role and responsibility.  This article will help you determine where to play a kid in youth football, or if you are desiring to play a particular position in football.

Check out the videos above as well for drills to help understand the positions even more. 

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