Before each play, the defensive team will set up in a specific formation. This is where each player stands in a certain spot on the field and has certain responsibilities once the play begins. Formations and responsibilities will shift and change during the game depending on the play and situation, however most teams run one main "base defense" that is the basis for all their formations.
How do they get the names of the formations?
A lot of the time base defenses are named for the front two lines of the defense. That is the linemen and the linebackers. For example, a 4-3 defense has 4 linemen and 3 linebackers while a 3-4 defense has 3 linemen and 4 linebackers. The 46 defense is different in that it got its name from a safety named Doug Plank who wore the jersey number 46 and played in the first version of the 46 defense.
Below are some of the main base defense formations run in football today:
The 4-3 is a very popular defensive formation in the NFL. It uses four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. Additional cornerbacks may replace the linebackers in passing situations (see dime and nickel defenses below).
The defensive ends are often the stars in the 4-3 as they provide the outside pass rushing attack and generate the most sacks. The D-line is critical in this popular defense, making defensive linemen a popular high choice in the draft and coveted players.
The 3-4 defense is similar to the 4-3, but adds in a linebacker instead of a defensive lineman. In the 3-4 there are three linemen, four linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties.
In the 3-4 defense, the emphasis is on speed. The linebackers take on a heavier load in both covering the run and rushing the passer. The nose tackle must be a huge guy and capable of taking on a couple of offensive linemen. The outside linebackers must be big and fast.
The 5-2 is built to stop the running game. It has five defensive linemen and two linebackers. This is a popular defense in high school and middle school where running is often the primary offensive play.
The 4-4 is another popular defense to help stop the running game. This defense has four defensive linemen and four linebackers. This allows for eight men in the box and is great for stopping the run, but is vulnerable to a passing attack.
The 46 defense is similar to the 4-3 defense, but allows the strong safety to come up and play in more of a linebacker position. This gives the defense a lot of flexibility, but you need a big and talented strong safety to play this formation.
Nickel and Dime
Dime defense with 6 DBs
The nickel and dime defenses are used in passing situations. In the nickel a fifth defensive back enters the game for a linebacker. In the dime a sixth defensive back enters the game for a linebacker.
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