What Are The Various Defensive Positions In American Football?

Football Defensive Positions

There are a variety of different defensive positions in football, each with their own responsibilities on the field. These players are tasked with shutting down the offense and doing their best to secure good field position for their team by causing turnovers.

What Are the 11 Defensive Positions in Football?

The 11 defensive positions in football are made up of three distinctive groups: the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs. Each team uses a different number of players in each position group based on the formation they are running.

The defensive line is made up of the defensive tackles (DT) and defensive ends (DE). Usually, there are three or four players on the defensive line, one or two defensive tackles and two defensive ends.

Then, there are linebackers. The linebacker group is made up of the middle linebacker (MLB) and the left and right outside linebackers (LOLB, ROLB).

Finally, the defensive backs (sometimes called the secondary). The defensive backs are made up of cornerbacks (CB) and safeties (S). The most common defense consists of four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs for a total of 11 players.

  1. Defensive Tackles
  2. Defensive Ends
  3. Linebackers
  4. Cornerbacks
  5. Safeties (Strong Safety, Free Safety)
  6. Nose Tackle

When a team is on defense they have two main goals:

  1. To get their team back on offense
  2. To prevent the opposing team from scoring points by forcing a turnover or a punt

The Defense

The defense can be divided into three groups of players:

  1. The Defensive Line
  2. Linebackers
  3. The Secondary

The Defensive Line

football Defensive Line

The defensive line is a key part of every football team.

They are the group of players who position themselves on the line of scrimmage and counter the opposing team's offensive line. They consist of the following player positions:

  1. Nose Tackle
  2. Left Tackle
  3. Right Tackle
  4. Defensive Ends

Nose Tackle

Nose tackles are defensive players who are a part of the defensive line. The main responsibility of the nose tackle is to stop running plays designed to go through the middle of the offensive line. These are often the biggest players on the field, and are not always a part of defensive strategy. Nose tackles are most useful in short yardage situations such as plays on the goal line or plays that occur close to the first down marker, in which offenses are more likely to utilize running plays up the middle. Top nose tackles in the history of the NFL include Vince Wilfork and Casey Hampton.

Left and Right Defensive Tackles

At any given time, a defense can run out two defensive tackles. These players are labeled the left and right tackle, in correspondence with which side of the field they are playing on. Defensive tackles have a few different responsibilities, depending on the nature of the offense’s play. In rushing scenarios, these players mimic the role of a nose tackle and attempt to stop running plays up the middle. However, these players tend to move a bit faster than nose tackles and are subsequently also tasked with pressuring the quarterback on passing plays. When successful, defensive tackles can also earn their fair share of sacks. Some of the best defensive tackles in NFL history are Warren Sapp and Reggie White.

Defensive Ends

The defensive ends play on the outside edges of the defensive line. There are typically two defensive ends on the field at a time, one on each side. Their main responsibilities are to attack the opposing team’s quarterback and stop runs to the outside of the line of scrimmage. They need to be skilled at evading blockers in order to get past the offensive line and put pressure on the quarterback, while also watching out for runs. Some of the greatest defensive ends in NFL history include JJ Watt and Michael Strahan.


Football Linebackers

Linebackers are found in the defensive backfield close to the line of scrimmage. They can serve as an extra pass defender or pass rusher, depending on the play. Linebackers can also blitz the quarterback in an attempt to get a sack. Linebackers need a combination of speed and strength to keep up with receivers they’re tasked with covering while also being able to contest offensive linemen in an attempt to sack the quarterback. Linebackers will usually cover opposing tight ends and running backs as opposed to wide receivers. There are usually at least two linebackers on the field, but can be more or less if it's a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. All time great linebackers in the NFL include Ray Lewis and Lawrence Taylor.

Middle Linebackers

Middle linebackers are often referred to as the quarterbacks of the defense. Especially in the NFL, these players typically relay play calls and audibles to the rest of the defense. As their name suggests, they lineup in the middle of the defense and are responsible for covering the middle of the field on pass plays. Middle linebackers typically focus more on stopping the run and covering receivers as opposed to rushing the quarterback. Famous middle linebackers include Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.

Outside Linebackers

Outside linebackers are typically split up between the left and right outside linebackers. Some teams use strong and weak side linebackers, meaning that the strongside linebacker lines up on the side with more offensive players as opposed to staying on the same side. These players will typically focus more on outside pass rushing and tend to accumulate a lot of sacks. In some defensive schemes, outside linebackers function as hybrid defensive ends and can line up as a defensive lineman. All-time great outside linebackers include Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Brooks.

The Secondary

football Secondary

The secondary is a group of players that are positioned in the defensive backfield. These players are the cornerbacks and linebackers, who are primarily tasked with defending against passing plays.


Cornerbacks are defensive players in the secondary, but they usually start on or near the line of scrimmage before protecting against routes in the defensive backfield. Cornerbacks specialize in covering the other team's wide receivers in man coverage and guarding shallow areas in zone coverage. Cornerbacks will also be tasked with tackling receivers on passing plays, as well as running backs who have broken through the defense. Their main responsibility is to prevent the other team from catching the ball. There are usually two cornerbacks on the field. All time great cornerbacks in the NFL include Darelle Revis and Deion Sanders.

Free Safety and Strong Safety

football safety position

The free safety and strong safety are defensive secondary players positioned in the defensive backfield. The strong safety is positioned on the strong side of the field, defending against passes and stopping the other team's ball carrier. The free safety is positioned on the opposite side of the other team's tight end on the weak side. These players are tasked with defending against passing plays in which receivers catch the ball farther down the field, as well as tackling both receivers and running backs who have broken through the rest of the defense. They typically help out cornerbacks to cover receivers and can sometimes function as hybrid linebackers. Two of the greatest safeties in the history of the NFL are Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu.


What is the hardest defensive position to play in football?

In football, many consider the cornerback to be the most difficult defensive position. Cornerbacks are tasked with guarding some of the most athletic and agile players on the field, the wide receivers. These receivers, paired with an accurate quarterback, can pose a huge threat to a team’s defense if not defended properly. Cornerbacks must be able to defend against both the pass and run, typically finding themselves isolated on one side of the field. Failure by cornerbacks can result in huge losses that can significantly cost the defense. To be an elite cornerback in the NFL, you must possess speed, agility, strength, high football IQ, and the ability to make sharp turns at any given moment.

What defensive position in football has the biggest players?

The largest players on any NFL defense tend to be the defensive and nose tackles. These players do not necessarily need the speed required by other defensive players like cornerbacks, however they’ll need size and strength in order to effectively contest offensive linemen play after play. For example, at one point in his career, Vince Wilfork weighed a whopping 325 pounds!

What defensive position in the NFL gets the most interceptions?

The members of any given defense’s secondary, the cornerbacks and safeties, almost always end up with the most interceptions in any given season. This is largely due to the fact that these players are consistently tasked with covering wide receivers as they run routes down the field. Naturally, this puts them in a more advantageous position to record interceptions and cause the offense to turn the ball over. This does not mean that other player’s don’t record interceptions at all, however. It is not at all uncommon to see linebackers intercept passes, and even defensive linemen will find themselves with the ball in their hands every so often.