There aren’t quite as many defensive "plays" as offensive plays, though the defense has some of the most dramatic football schemes and tactics. Defensive coordinators have the choice of implementing aggressive, blitzing schemes or more conservative bend-but-don’t-break philosophies.
Before I get into pass defenses, though, I want to discuss the major defensive alignments up front. The traditional defense is the 4-3 defense, with 4 down linemen and 3 linebackers.
A newer defense is the 3-4 defense, which has 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers.
"Down lineman" means a lineman who starts the play with a hand on the ground. If a lineman has one hand on the ground, this is called a three-point stance (two legs and one hand touching the ground). If a lineman has two hands on the ground, this is called a four-point stance.
Linemen get in the down position for the purposes of leverage, trying to get under their opponents and moving them back. Linebackers typically do not place a hand on the ground, but prefer to stand upright, so they can better run after a ball carrier or drop into coverage.
Occasionally, a linebacker in a 3-4 defense will move up to the line and drop down into a 3-point stance. Technically, this turns the defense into a 4-3 defense.
The 4-3 Defense
The 4-3 has two defensive tackles and two defensive ends. The two tackles are meant to stop the run primarily, though one of these two tackles is usually a little smaller and quicker and therefore tends to have a little bit better pass rush skills. In any case, the defensive tackles are the larger defenders on the field.
The two defensive linemen are the primary pass rushers, trying to get around the ends of the defense to the quarterbacks. The weakside/right side end tends to be the thinnest and quickest linemen, meant to be the best pass rusher. The strongside/left side defensive end is usually a little bigger and stronger, because he must be prepared to handle blocks on the strong side (where the tight end lines up).
Still, strongside DE’s can be solid pass rushers, such as Michael Strahan and Reggie White.
The 4-3 Defense remains the most used defense in the NFL, because it tends to maintain a balance between run defense and pass defense. The current defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants employ a classic 4-3 defense.
The 3-4 Defense
The 3-4 defense has only one defensive tackle and two defensive ends. The defensive tackle is usually known as the nose guard, because he lines up on the center. The ends in a 3-4 defense tend to be bigger and better against the run than 4-3 ends, though they are not as skilled at rushing the passer.
The outside linebackers are the best pass rushers in a 3-4 defenses, especially the weakside linebacker. These men rush from an upright position and use speed to get to the quarterback. Lawrence Taylor is the prototypical example of the weakside linebacker in the 3-4.
One advantage of the 3-4 is it is less predictable in who might rush the passer, as the weakside linebacker is more likely to drop back in coverage and let the strongside linebacker or another player rush from an unpredictable point along the line.
There are two middle linebackers in the 3-4, and each of these players are expected to be solid run stoppers. Often, the 3-4 middle linebackers are larger players, because they don’t have as many linemen to shield them from blockers as the 4-3 defense does.
The 3-4 Defense is popular in the NFL, though not quite as popular as the 4-3. Still, the Bill Parcells and Bill Belichik defenses are 3-4 defense. Currently, some of the best defenses in the league, like the New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys are 3-4 defense.
Here are the options available for defensives coaches in pass defense. I’ll talk about run defenses afterwards. I break pass defense into two aspects of defenses: the pass rush and pass coverage.
The pass rush is the attempt to get to the quarterback before he throws. If your defense tackles the quarterback before he gets rid of the ball, it is called a sack. If the pass rushers force the quarterback to throw the ball under pressure of being sacked, this is called a quarterback hurry.
The hurry is more common than the sack. Often, a quarterback will hurry a throw to avoid a sack, because negative yardage downs like sacks often stall drives. But if a quarterback hurries a throw, he is less likely to throw an accurate pass, which causes incompletions and might cause an interception. Here are the types of pass rushes.
The Four-Man Rush
This is the standard rush package. Four pass rushers, typically the four down linemen, try to sack the quarterback. The other seven defenders stay back in pass coverage.
Defenses which can get pressure on the quarterback with the standard four-man rush are at a decided advantage in football.
This allows the defense to play conservative coverage schemes while also forcing the quarterback to throw early. In Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants defense was able to get pressure on Tom Brady with 4-down linemen, something which few other teams had been able to do against the New England Patriots all year. This is probably the single biggest reason the Giants defeated the Patriots in the Superbowl.
In 3-4 defenses, a four-man rush will include the three down linemen and one linebacker, usually one of the outside linebackers. The most likely outside linebacker to rush is the weakside linebacker, because he is not "covered" by a tight end. Weakside linebackers tend to be players like Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas and Andre Tippett.
One strength of the 3-4 defense is its unpredictability, though. The weakside linebacker might drop back into coverage, allowing the strongside linebacker or one of the middle linebackers to rush instead. This makes it harder for the offensive linemen to know their blocking assignments for the play.
Stunt plays happen when two pass rushers work together to angle around behind the blockers. One pass rusher moves towards the opponent most likely to block a second defender. In doing so, this pass rusher hopes to lure the lineman who is assigned to block him, creating a double-team.
The other pass rusher runs around the first pass rusher, hopefully by-passing both blockers. By creating a double-team situation, the idea is to spring the second defender to go unblocked at the quarterback.
Stunts usually take place in a passing situation. One danger is that the offense runs the ball and the ball carrier runs through the hole vacated by the stunting linemen. Another danger is the blockers read the stunt and stay at home, simply switching off linemen. In this case, the defensive lineman looking to engage a blocker has taken himself out of the play.
When a four-man rush does not consistently get to the quarterback, a team can employ a blitz package.
Blitzes happen when 5 or more defensive players rush the passer. The idea is to overwhelm the offenses’s blockers, free one or more blitzers to sack the quarterback.
There are a variety of blitzes. Some of the more famous defensive blitz schemes of the past and present include the 46-blitz scheme, the Zone Blitz and many other variations.
All defenses have blitz packages, so standard 4-3 and 3-4 defenses will include blitzes to get to the passer in certain situations. Even conventional 3-4 defenses might employ zone blitz plays, where an unlikely defender drops back in coverage and lets quicker players come forward to rush the passer from surprising locations.
The Zone Blitz
The Zone Blitz came into vogue in the 1990′s, mainly on the strength of such defensive success as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers. The Zone Blitz depends on unpredictability to create mismatches.
A defensive lineman might drop back into pass coverage, leaving a blocker with no one to block. At the same time, a safety or cornerback might blitz in from the other side of the line, forcing the lineman to spring across the pocket to block a much faster player.
Like many blitzes, the zone blitz depends on overloading one side of the field, creating situations where there are simply not enough blockers to cover a blitz along one part of the line.
The zone blitz creates holes in the defense when teams surprisingly run the ball. Also, the zone blitz sometimes puts defensive linemen and linebackers in mismatch situations in coverage. On the positive side, the zone blitz seems to give the largest, most immobile offensive lines big problems.
The idea is to create mismatches and force the action, hoping a hurried quarterback will not be able to exploit the mismatches the zone blitzes create on defense.
Larger offensive lines tend to have trouble with the Zone Blitz, because it requires these large linemen to move in order to complete their blocks. For instance, the Dallas Cowboys, known to employ one of the largest lines in the past 15 years, traditionally have had trouble with the Zone Blitz. The Troy Aikman-led won Super Bowl XXX, but had trouble moving the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers zone blitz.
The next season, the Cowboys were ousted from the playoffs by the Carolina Panthers and the zone blitz schemes of Dom Capers. Years later, Dom Capers would stifle the Cowboys again with the zone blitz, when his expansion Houston Texans won the first regular season game in Texans franchise history against the Dallas Cowboys, who were still employing a larger offensive line.
The 46 Defense was used to great effect in the 1980′s by Buddy Ryan, when he was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. The defense used asymmetric defensive alignments to disrupt normal blocking assignments on offense.
For instance, the two defensive tackles on and the strongside defensive end would line up opposite the offense’s center and two guards. Because trapping guards were such a big part of offenses in the Eighties, this forced teams away from some of their bread-and-butter plays, because the guards had to account for the linemen opposite of them.
Meanwhile, the right defensive end (or weakside end) lined up outside of the left tackle, making it hard for the offense to double-team that end. Two linebackers lined up next to one another across from the right tackle and tight end (or strongside, as it would be).
The 46 alignment also called for blitzes up up to eight defenders, though five or six was mroe common. Cornerbacks played man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage. (Bump-and-run calls for the corner to get in the receiver’s face at the line of scrimmage and jam the receiver at the line of scrimmage.)
All of this combined to shut down the opponent’s running game and force offenses into long-yardage passing downs, where the blitz became more effective. Its weakness was in the passing game, as it forced corners into single coverage. If the offense could block the blitz for a split second, good quarterbacks could throw for big plays.
In the most famous match-up between the 46 Defense and a great quarterback, Dan Marino handed the ’85 Bears its only loss in an 18-1 campaign. The Dolphins employed 3- and 4-wide receiver sets, forcing Bears linebackers to move into the slot and cover slot receivers. This had predictable results.
In its day, the 46 Defense was the terror of the NFL. These days, with so many teams running the West Coast Offense, the 46 Defense is hardly ever used anymore (outside of an experiment with its one year by the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan.)
The West Coast Offense relies on short, quick passes. These negate blitzes by getting rid of the ball quickly, and calls on receivers to exploit mismatches and run after the catch.
Other Blitz Schemes
There are other blitz schemes out there, of course. The New England Patriots use a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense, which once again comes at the offense from different angles and relies on unpredictability.
Of course, rushing the passer is only half of the picture in NFL pass defenses. To learn about pass coverages, read the second half of our article at
More Defensive Football Plays.