Ok, so it’s now time to move on to the defensive side of the game and I think we might as well start with the more commonly used formations. If you’re not sure about the player positions on defense then can I suggest you have a look at my Guide to the Game section of the site where you’ll find the Team Positions – Defense page.

Right, let’s get on with it:


The 4-3 defensive formation is, probably, the most common of the formations used. Generally, teams seem to be classed as either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense but this doesn’t mean that they play out of that formation all the time. So, what is the 4-3?

4-3 defense

The formation gets its name from the number of “down linemen” and linebackers it has. A “down lineman” is an offensive or defensive player up on the line of scrimmage in a 3 or 4-point stance (they have one or two hands on the ground). In this formation there are 4 down linemen (the DT’s and DE’s) and 3 linebackers (the OLB’s and MLB), thus the formation is known as the 4-3.

This formation is one of the two base formations that others come from and could be regarded as a Jack-of-all-trades type of package. If your team can get a couple of good DE’s who can get at the QB and a couple of big, strong DT’s who can occupy much of the interior of the line of scrimmage, you have the basis for a great defense.


The second of the two basic all-rounder defenses is known as the 3-4. This gets its name in the same way as the 4-3 above. The numbers are swapped round because the number of down linemen to linebackers is flipped. In the 3-4 we have 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers.

3-4 Defense

As you can see from the image above, the formations don’t look too different. In the 4-3 you have DT’s on the line of scrimmage but in the 3-4 we now have a Nose Tackle (NT) as he lines up directly over the offensive center instead of to one side of him like the DT’s do.

Just as a note, the MLB’s (middle linebackers) are often referred to as ILB’s (inside linebackers).

This formation doesn’t usually get as much pressure on the QB as the 4-3 because it has one less down lineman trying to “collapse the pocket” and get to him. Because of this, you’ll probably see more “blitzing” by teams who operate the 3-4. This is when one or more of the linebackers and/or safeties (SS, FS) join in the rush to get to the QB for the sack. Often you will see the OLB’s line up on the line of scrimmage next to the DE’s in either a 2-point or 3-point stance when they are actually going to or are trying to make it look like they are going to blitz.


The Nickel defensive formation is now seen more frequently in the NFL due to the amount of passing the offenses do in today’s game.

Nickel Defense

As you can see in the picture above, the defense has removed one of its linebackers from its 4-3 base formation and replaced it with a third cornerback (CB) who is known as the “Nickel”. This is done to counter the fact that most offenses these days will play with only one running back, who is the quicker halfback (HB), and will remove the bigger fullback (FB) in favour of a third wide receiver (WR). The third WR will usually line up somewhere between the more wider lined up WR and the end of the offensive line (the tackle or tight end depending on which side he is lining up) and is referred to as the slot receiver. This guy is usually very quick and agile and excels at catching quick, hard passes from the QB. If he is in the lineup and the defense remains in its base 4-3 or 3-4, there is going to be a mismatch as a linebacker would have trouble covering him. This is why the linebacker is removed and the extra CB is added.

The formation gets its name due to the 5 defensive backs (3 CB’s, 1 FS and 1 SS) and the U.S. coin that is worth 5 cents is called the Nickel.


This is another of the formations a team will employ to stop the opposition’s passing game. Instead of the 5 defensive backs this one goes a step further and has 6. The sixth defensive back to come in is usually another cornerback and he is known as the “Dimeback”. This is so because he is, essentially, a second “Nickle” and two nickels equal a dime in American currency.

Dime defense

This is a very good defense to run when the offense has brought in a fourth WR or has a good pass-catching running back coming out of the backfield on obvious passing downs. If, for example, it’s 3rd down and 9, the offense is more than likely going to pass as they would stand more chance of getting the first down they need to keep the ball. If an offense decides to try and trick the defense they might run the ball instead. If they do this it is because they have seen the defense in the Dime formation and know it’s weaker against the run due to it only having the one linebacker. It is the job of the strong safety (SS) to come up and help stop the run before it gets those 9 yards needed.

Quarters / Prevent

This is the extreme of the pass defenses and is only usually seen towards the end of a game and when the team on defense is winning by a comfortable score. It is purely to stop the offense from scoring quickly on a long pass play at the expense of allowing them to run for shorter yardage.

Quarter Prevent defense

This formation sees the removal of yet another down lineman which will reduce the amount of pressure they can get on the QB but adds in a fifth defensive back (a CB in this example) to help cover further downfield. There is still the single linebacker in the middle of the formation to keep an eye on tight ends and running backs as well as the QB to stop them running for longer yardage. He, basically, covers the middle of the field.

Goal Line Defense

The goal line defense is the total opposite to the Quarter defense. This defensive formation is used to stop the run at a risk of letting a surprise pass be completed.

Goal Line defense

Suddenly all those defensive backs have disappeared and we have replaced them with more of the big guys. This formation is used when the offense are looking to gain just a yard or two – most often when they are on the goal line. It packs the line of scrimmage with seven of the big. strong guys as the running play by the offense will, most often, go up the middle. The LB and SS are there to read-and-react to either rush forward and help stuff the run or go out into pass coverage if it all suddenly turns into a trick pass play. The FS and CB are also there to keep an eye on possible passing plays or runs to the outside rather than up the middle.


So, although I started of saying that the base packages of a defense is either the 4-3 or 3-4 defense, this could be argued in today’s game. This is because of the amount of passing that’s done by opposition offenses. Because there is more passing, you will likely see more Nickel and even Dime packages being used

This is all good for us spectators of this great game as, although the running game definitely has its place, the passing game is much more fun to watch.

Next time you’re watching a game and the camera pans out, just have a look and see if you can recognise what package the defense is in.