We continue our discussion of American football positions, including defense and special teams positions.
Located on the outside of the defensive line, the defensive end�s job is to try and contain plays to the inside. They must close down holes to prevent running plays, and they are also responsible with getting into the backfield and pressuring or sacking the quarterback.
Defensive ends are usually the smallest players on the defensive line, and they use their speed to try and maneuver around offensive lineman. They may also be used to cover offensive players running very short passing routes.
Due to their ability to disrupt an offense, teams are always searching for talented defensive ends. Some current stars at the position include Jared Allen, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jason Taylor and Patrick Kerney.
Part of the defensive line, two defensive tackles (or one in a 3-4 defense) line up in the center of the field and are flanked by the defensive ends. Such players are often the largest men on the defensive line, and their job is to fill holes to prevent runs and apply pressure to the quarterback. They may also try to tie up offensive lineman in an effort to allow linebackers to move unblocked into the backfield.
Notable modern-day defensive tackles include Kevin Williams, Tommie Harris, Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth.
Located in the center of the defensive line, the nose tackle is responsible for disrupting running plays and getting pressure on the quarterback. In the 4-3 alignment, the nose tackle is usually the defensive tackle facing the �weak side� of the offensive line. In the 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle is the defensive line�s lone defensive tackle.
In either formation, the nose tackle may be assigned to tie up the opposing center and one guard. This will leave other defensive players with a 1-on-1 matchup or no blockers at all.
Linebackers are defensive players who line up three to four yards behind the defensive line. Depending on the formation, there may be as many as seven linebackers on the field.
In most cases, there will be three or four linebackers on the field (since the 3-4 and 4-3 defenses are most popular in the NFL – with the first number denoting how many lineman and the second denoting how many linebackers).
Linebackers may be called upon to stop running plays, generate pressure on the quarterbacks or even drop back into pass coverage. The three types of linebackers are:
Strongside Linebacker – Located across from the tight end, this linebacker will often be called upon to shed the block of a tight end or fullback and fight their way to the ball carrier. In most cases, he is the strongest linebacker on the field.
Weakside Linebacker – Often called upon to drop into pass coverage, the weakside linebacker will usually be the quickest of the linebacking corps. While they may be asked to chase down a running play from the backside, they are most often used to rush the passer.
Middle/Inside Linebacker – The middle linebacker is often in communication with the coach, and he will call plays for the linebacking corps. Their primary responsibility is to shut down the opposing team�s running game. In the 3-4 defensive alignment, there are two inside linebackers.
Notable modern-day linebackers are Ray Lewis, Julian Peterson, Shawne Merriman and DeMeco Ryans.
Situated in the defensive secondary, a team playing defense will have two cornerbacks on the field at all times. While they may move up to pressure the passer or stop the run, their primary responsibility is to cover opposing receivers. This may be done in a man-to-man or zone capacity.
In NFL Football, the cornerback is not allowed to make significant contact with the wide receiver starting five yards from the line of scrimmage. If they do, they risk drawing a pass interference penalty.
Notable modern-day cornerbacks include Champ Bailey, Al Harris, Marcus Trufant and Asante Samuel.
Known for their hard hitting, safeties are a team�s last line of defense. Prior to the snap, they are usually lined up five to ten yards in the defensive backfield. Safeties are expected to help stop the run and to assist the cornerbacks with shutting down the passing game.
There are two types of safeties. They are:
Strong Safety – The strong safety is asked to cover the �strong� side of the field (the side where the tight end lines up). They usually play closer to the line of scrimmage and help out against the running game. If a player from the backfield goes out for a pass, the strong safety may also be responsible for covering them.
Free Safety – This player usually has a bit more flexibility in watching the play unfold. They will often run to help a cornerback cover a receiver, but they may also be assigned to move near the line and blitz the quarterback. If an offense uses three or more receivers, the free safety may be asked to provide coverage. The free safety tends to be faster than the strong safety.
Notable modern-day safeties include Ed Reed, Bob Sanders, John Lynch and Roy Williams.
Since a basic defense contains four defensive backs (2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties), a fifth defensive back is known as a �nickelback.� In such a formation, the nickelback will usually take the place of a linebacker or lineman.
The nickel defense is usually used when then offense employs three or more receivers. This most frequently occurs in situations like third-and-long.
The player filling the role of a nickelback is usually the team�s third cornerback.
A cornerback who serves as the sixth defensive back in a formation. The �dime� formation is used when the offensive team employs three of more receivers. When such a formation is called, the dimeback will usually take the place of a linebacker.
Also known as a �shooter,� the gunner plays on kickoff and punt coverage. He is responsible for quickly getting downfield and tackling the kick or punt returner. During punts, two gunners will be lined up on the outside like wide receivers. They are allowed to run downfield as soon as the ball is snapped, while all other players must wait until the ball has been kicked.
During field goals and extra point attempts, the holder is the player who receives the snap and sets it up for the kicker.
The kick returner is a special teams player who must catch the ball during a kickoff and try to run down the field for a touchdown. This position is usually reserved for one of the fastest players on the team.
Notable kick returners include Devin Hester, Dante Hall, Deion Sanders and Brian Mitchell.
The long snapper is a center who specializes in snapping the ball during punts, field goals and extra point attempts. They may also be referred to as a deep snapper.
The placekicker is responsible for field goals, extra points and kickoffs. On some teams, kickoffs will be handled by the punter, so the kicker only has to worry about field goals and extra points.
A good placekicker is highly valuable to a NFL team, as many games are decided by last second field goal attempts. Notable placekickers include Adam Vinatieri, Nick Folk and Rob Bironas.
The punter receives the snap from the line of scrimmage and is responsible for punting the ball to the opposing team. This almost always occurs on fourth down, after an offensive team has failed to keep a drive alive.
A punter is responsible for kicking the ball down the field in an effort to minimize the other team�s field position. Skilled kickers may even be able to place the football within five yards of the opponent�s end zone, but this is very difficult to do. In recent years, punters are also being used more on kickoff duties.
Notable punters include Shane Lechler, Andy Lee and Hunter Smith.
The punt returner is responsible for catching the ball after it has been punted and trying to return it for a touchdown. They may also call for a fair catch or allow the ball to bounce on the ground. Punt returners often play other positions, such as running back, cornerback and wide receiver.