Football Defensive Formations

Defensive formations in football can vary from team to team. In this section, we hope to explain some of the basics and then give you insights into the details behind some of the more advanced professional football defensive formations like Tampa 2 and nickel.

Object of the Defense

To state the absolute obvious, the defense’s job is to defend. They are defending their goal so the opposing team does not score any points. However, they do have some secondary goals too.

  1. Get the other team’s offense off the field as quickly as possible. This is important because as long as an offense is on the field, they are more in control of the game. When an offense is on the field for a long time, it makes it very difficult for the other team to score, they control the clock and the tempo of the game, and can really make a defense tire quickly. A tired defense is not an effective one.
  2. Take the ball away from the offense at any opportunity. That means making a hard hit on the guy with the ball, swatting at the ball to try and knock it out of their hand, or intercepting a pass. Fumbles and interceptions recovered by the defense not only allows their team’s offense back on the field, but they can be huge momentum changers.

Defense Positions and Abbreviations

To review the typical defensive positions and their abbreviations, you have:

NG – Nose Guard

DT – Defensive Tackle

DE – Defensive End

S – Safety

FS – Free Safety

SS – Strong Safety

CB – Corner Back

LB/OLB/MLB/RLB/LLB/ILB – Line Backer – they vary in number but are categorized as Outside, Middle, Right, Left, or Inside Line Backers

Unlike the offense, there is little that is ‘always the same’. Guys can and do move around a lot. They even can move around right before the snap with no rules other than not being allowed to come across the line of scrimmage or being in the imaginary space the length of the football called the neutral zone (see below).

what is the neutral zone in football

Defensive Formations:

Teams generally play a single defensive formation for several years if not even longer. Switching from one formation to another requires different knowledge by the coaching staff and different skills from the defensive positions. Teams will likely change from one formation to another when a new defensive coordinator is hired or if they just seem to be failing miserably at the one they are running (which generally leads to the coach being fired – go figure!)

The defensive formations are not necessarily any better at the run versus the pass than any other defense. If the defense is playing against a strong running or strong passing team, they will likely change their coverage strategies and some other nuances but not the core of the formation. 

Now, although a team has a main formation (3-4, 4-3, etc.), that is mostly in reference to the linemen and the linebackers. There are still 4 more players who change their coverage (man or zone), decide when to blitz or fake a blitz and so much more. They do a lot play to play to keep the offense guessing what they are doing and where they are going.

Why use a particular defensive formation?

Well, that could be a long answer but here is Flip’s shortened version.

  1. It is a matter of preference for the defensive coach.
  2. It is based on the type of talent already on the team and the talent they recruit.


4-3 Defensive Formation

3-4 Defensive Formation


More defensive formations are coming soon! Check back for:


Cover 2 Defense

Cover 3 Defense

Tampa 2 Defense

Nickel Defense

Dime Defense



Blitz Definition

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