Football Defensive Lineman

football defensive line

What is a Defensive Lineman in Football?

Defensive lineman in football is a position that specializes in defensive play on the line of scrimmage. These players are also called down linemen or D linemen. Before the snap, defensive linemen get in a position where they have one or two hands on the ground, also called a three- or four-point stance.

The positions that are considered defensive linemen are defensive tackles and defensive ends. Defensive linemen are the ones directly facing the offensive line and who cover blocks and try to sack the quarterback. The three-point stance allows the defensive lineman to have more impulse and strength when attacking the offensive line players while also making it easier for them to go under an offensive lineman’s block.

Different defensive schemes use a different number of defensive linemen. While a defensive lineman can better attack the quarterback, they have a limited view of the quarterback and the receivers. Some coaches prefer to have more linebackers than linemen in their defensive formations. The difference in the number of linebackers and defensive linemen is the fundamental distinction between two of football’s most popular defensive schemes, the 4-3 defense and the 3-4 defense. The first number in the name of the defensive schemes is the number of defensive linemen, and the second is the number of linebackers. Thus, a 4-3 defense has four linemen and three linebackers, while a 3-4 defense has three defensive linemen and four linebackers.

Defensive Lineman Responsibilities

Defensive linemen have two main responsibilities: shedding blocks of offensive linemen and making tackles. They are the first line of defense against running backs and quarterbacks carrying the ball. The physical nature of their position requires defensive linemen to be big, tall, and strong.

Defensive Lineman Positions

There are three defensive lineman positions: nose tackle, defensive tackle, and defensive end. Keep reading for more details on the attributes and roles of each one.

Nose Tackle

Football Nose Tackle

Nose tackles are the sole inside linemen on 3-4 defensive plays. They line up directly opposite the center on offense. The nose tackle is often the largest defensive lineman, as they must support the center of the line by themselves, covering two gaps. Nose tackles can reliably expect a double team from the center and a guard.

Defensive Tackle

Football Defensive Tackle

Defensive tackles are inside linemen on 4-3 defensive plays. In 4-3 schemes, there are two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. The nose tackle typically also serves as a defensive tackle. The role of a defensive tackle is similar to a nose tackle: they are asked to cover blocks and tackle ball carriers. One distinction is that a defensive tackle will sometimes be called on to rush the quarterback, while most of the nose tackle’s duties take place around the line of scrimmage.

Defensive End

Football Defensive End

Defensive ends are the outside linemen and are typically the smallest linemen. They are often asked to break a block, get around the offensive line and rush the quarterback, as well as being tasked with tackling ball carriers. The roles and requirements of 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 are slightly different, and they are often scouted and assigned as separate positions. 4-3 defensive ends are smaller and quicker, more often asked to rush and tackle. 3-4 defensive ends are bigger and more often used to cover blocks, taking on a similar role to a defensive tackle.

Defensive Lineman Skills

Defensive linemen must have a number of unique skills in order to perform effectively on the field. The three major skills a defensive lineman must master are their defensive stance, their initial charge on the play, and their use of hands.

In terms of their stance, a good defensive lineman must perfect their three-point stance. A solid stance is critical for avoiding defensive penalties such as a neutral zone infraction, which occurs when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. This penalty can be critical for the offense, so it is necessary that defensive linemen avoid it by adopting a good stance.

The second critical skill of a defensive lineman is their initial charge or “get off” upon the snap. This is the first movement a lineman makes on the play when they collide with the offensive line and attempt to prevent runners from advancing. The key to a good initial charge is to improve reaction time, so a defensive lineman must perfect their ability to react quickly to a snap in the hopes of surprising the offense and gaining an advantage over them.

Finally, the third vital skill of the defensive lineman is their use of hands. The hands are the primary means defensive linemen use to push against their offensive counterparts in an attempt to force or direct them into creating gaps for the linebackers to exploit. Good defensive linemen must practice the skills of placing their hands in the correct place when engaging an opponent and also learn how to effectively resist the offense’s own linemen in their attempt to direct the flow of the play. 

Notable NFL Defensive Linemen

  • Aaron Donald
  • Joe Greene
  • Deacon Jones
  • Alan Page
  • Bruce Smith
  • Michael Strahan
  • Jason Taylor
  • J.J. Watt
  • Randy White
  • Reggie White


What types of players are defensive linemen?

In football, defensive linemen are large, strong defensive players who play on the line of scrimmage, directly opposing the offensive linemen. They are also referred to as down linemen. There are two main types of defensive linemen: defensive tackles and defensive ends. The defensive tackles are on the inside of the formation, directly in front of the offensive line. The defensive ends stand beside the defensive tackles, forming the ends of the defensive line. These formations can be altered depending on the defensive scheme, so there may be differing numbers of linemen on different plays.  

What is the difference between a lineman and a linebacker?

In football, defensive linemen and linebackers are differentiated by their positions and roles. Defensive linemen square off against the offensive line, while linebackers “back up” the defensive line, positioning themselves behind the linemen. Defensive linemen are responsible for stopping the offensive line and forming a barrier to stop runners, while linebackers aim to tackle the quarterback, stop runners who escape the defensive linemen, or foil passing plays.

How many defensive linemen are there on a play?

The number of defensive linemen on a play varies based on the defensive scheme being used by the defense. For example, in a 3-4 defense, there will be three defensive linemen (a nose tackle and two defensive ends) and four linebackers. However, a 4-3 defense will make use of four defensive linemen (two defensive tackles and two defensive ends) and three linebackers. Other defensive schemes include the 4-4 defense, the 46 defense, the 5-2 defense, and the 5-3 defense. In all of these schemes, the first number refers to the number of defensive linemen on the play.