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Best Defensive Schemes in Football

Arjun Kulkarni Aug 17, 2020
A good defense can win you more games than you can imagine. Hence, understandably, it is important to be well versed with the defensive football schemes in American Football.
Defense is the mainstay of most teams in American Football. A good defense could be the deciding factor between a title winning team and any other team. Just ask the legendary Tom Landry, who won so many NFL titles with the Dallas Cowboys team!

Defensive Football Formations

Defensive Linesmen

Like the name suggests, they are the players that stand directly behind the line of scrimmage. Most teams use 3 or 4 linesmen depending on the game plan. They are supposed to tackle the offense players in the team to help rush the ball forward.

Defensive Linebackers

Defensive linebackers are the second line of defense in case the ball gets past the linesmen. The tougher linebackers line up behind the linesmen while the thinner, faster ones play on the wings and rush the ball to the offense players. Teams may use 3 or 4 linebackers based on the formation.

Defensive Backs

Teams usually play with 4 defensive backs - two cornerbacks who stand on end of the pitch as a protection from opposition players running in through the wings and passing into the center, one free safety who goes around the entire line of defense, and a strong safety who is the cover for the opposition players who get past both the linesmen and linebackers.
There are two main defensive football formations in American Football. Which formation to take in a particular game depends largely on what positions the opposition is taking. These are as follows:

The 4-3: The 4-3 was the formation which if not invented, was certainly adopted by Tom Landry with great success.
The 4-3 looks like a more balanced formation with 2 defensive tackles in the center just behind the line of scrimmage and two defensive ends on the two sides of the tackles. There are 3 linebackers and 4 defensive backs as protection in case the ball gets past the linesmen.
The 3-4: Just the reverse of the 4-3, the 3-4 is another commonly used formation in American Football. The 3-4 employs 3 defensive linesmen, 1 defensive tackle with 2 ends, 4 linebackers with 2 middle linebackers, 1 strong linebacker with 1 weak linebacker, and 4 defensive backs.

Getting the Right Defense

There are basically two defensive schemes, the first being pass rushing and the second is called pass coverage.

Pass Rushing

As the name suggests, pass rushing is making an opposition offense player pass the ball. When an opposition player has possession of the ball, he will make a run towards the end zone. But the player will have to pass if a defender comes at him.
If the defender catches the opposition player and gets the ball, it is known as a sack. Hence, to avoid a sack, the opposition player will be forced into making the pass to his own teammate, thus forfeiting the possession and risking the ball going to the player from the other team. This is called pass rushing.
The most common form of pass rushing is called the four man rush. The four man rush is where the four linesmen in the 4-3 formation rush the forward players, while the other 7 defensive players stay back in their zones.

Pass Coverage

Now pass rushing may not always work, especially against a team which is pretty good at passing and has a good offensive formation. Pass coverage plugs this problem.
It is the exact opposite of pass rushing in the sense that as pass rushing tries to make the opposition player pass, pass coverage aims to avoid or neutralize the effect of the pass. Pass coverage is of two basic types: the man-to-man and zonal.
Man-to-Man: It is a simple enough concept. Each player is allotted one forward and they should mark him all the time. There is also a sub category in this scheme, known as double coverage where a really good player is trailed by two markers.
The defensive player should either block all the passes to the man he's marking and then rush the ball forward, or should his man get the ball, chase him down and get the ball back. Needless to say, the first option is the simpler one.
Zonal: As opposed to man-to-man marking, players playing in a zonal defense, protect 'zones' rather than players. Since there is a chance that a player may escape from his marker, zonal marking ensures that the players guard their territories.
But then both these systems are a bit in the extreme, so coaches have come up with some mid-way solutions such as cover-1, cover-2, cover-3 and cover-4 defense. The number stands for the number of zones covered. A cover-0 is a man-to-man marking with no zones covered.
American football is a physically very demanding game, but if you decide to play smart, instead of playing hard, you can get a lot more effect in a lot less effort. Hence, the strategy for any team is very important.