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Defense: What does that term mean?

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By Eli Kaberon

Part Two of a three-part series

Offenses tend to receive much of the glory in football, but defenses tend to receive the best nicknames. The defensive line of the Rams in the 1960s was known as the Fearsome Foursome, the Cowboys in the 1970s had the Doomsday Defense, and later that decade Pittsburgh dominated with the Steel Curtain. Vikings fans still talk with reverence about the Purple People Eaters, just as the Jets' New York Sack Exchange and New Orleans' Dome Patrol are often regarded by those legions of fans as the best that suited up for their teams.

The nicknames for the defenses aren't the only unique lexicon associated with that side of the ball. Terminology for defenders, strategy and formations are always evolving, just as the on-field game plans are. Broadcasters and writers often use advanced terms in their analysis, but the football-viewing public isn't always following what they are saying.

Pro Football Weekly has decided to compile some of these complex terms and break them down. Here are some definitions relating to defense, including the duties of the different LB positions.

'30' or '40' front (3-4, 4-3, '46')

The number associated with the front is the same as the number of players on the defensive line. A "30" front is the same as a 3-4 defense, which has three defensive linemen, two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers. The "40" front is most commonly a 4-3, which has four defensive linemen, two outside ’backers and one in the middle. Another variation of the latter is the "46" defense, popularized by the 1985 Chicago Bears, which has four defensive linemen, three linebackers and also two defensive backs crowding the line of scrimmage.

Cover zones

The number of players in the secondary covering an area instead of a man details what type of zone defense a team is playing. "It has to do with the number of zones you have in a defense," former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly said. "For example, cover-1 is just one man in zone, everybody else in man-to-man."

The most common type of zone defense is the cover-2, where the safeties divide the field in half and try to take away deep passes. Several teams also use cover-3, which divides the secondary into thirds, and cover-4, also known as the "quarters D."

Gap

The goal of an offensive line, when run blocking, is to create gaps for a tailback to run through. The goal of the defensive line is to plug those gaps and make the tackle. These specific gaps are labeled based on who is doing the blocking. For example, if the run is going to the right, the gap between the center and right guard is the A-gap, between guard and right tackle is B-gap, between the tackle and tight end is C-gap, and outside of the tight end is D-gap. Defenses will try to predict where the run is going and fill the gap before the back can burst through the line at full speed.

Goal-line defense

When an offense is within five yards of the endzone, the defense usually will trot out its goal-line formation. Safeties are removed, since the threat of the deep pass isn't viable, and extra run-stopping defensive linemen are added. Linebackers are also moved up, so instead of having four players on the line, there are as many as seven, hoping to plug every gap in the offensive line.

Linebacker positions

For a right-handed quarterback, the strong side of the formation is his right, where he has better vision and can deliver the ball to his receivers quicker. The tight end is lined up to that side, so lined up across on defense is the strong-side (Sam) linebacker. This ’backer must be skilled at stopping the run, since with the extra blocker, tailbacks will run that way the majority of the time.

The middle (Mike) linebacker is across from the quarterback, which makes sense, because this player is usually the signalcaller for the defense. Responsibilities include stopping runs up the middle, dropping into pass coverage and running sideline-to-sideline to support his fellow 'backers.

Covering the quarterback's left is the weak-side (Will) linebacker. Since he has no tight end to cover, this 'backer often follows the ball, whether pursuing the running back if he's coming out of the backfield to catch a pass, or attempting to make a tackle on runs.

In a 3-4 defense, there is also a rush linebacker, who generally lines up where a "Will" would in a 4-3. His primary goal is exactly what his title describes: pressure the QB. Coming from the offense's blind side, the rush 'backer uses pure speed and other techniques to try to get in the backfield and sack the quarterback.

Neutral zone

An imaginary, length-of-the-football area at the line of scrimmage between the offense and defense that is only relevant before the snap. If a defender enters the neutral zone prior to the ball being snapped, it is encroachment. If an offensive player is lined up there when the play begins, it is an offside infraction.

Nickel/Dime/Prevent

The number of defensive backs on the field determines the formation. A standard defense has four DBs (two cornerbacks, a free safety and a strong safety), but in passing situations such as 3rd-and-long, teams will replace linebackers with more players skilled at defending the pass. Three corners and a total of five DBs is the nickel formation; another back makes it six and the dime formation.

The "prevent" is not a specific formation but a strategy defensive coordinators utilize when leading by multiple scores at the end of the game. By playing their safeties much deeper than usual, they force the offense to use precious time in moving down the field instead of scoring on a long pass play.

Press coverage

A type of man-to-man defense where a defensive back lines up close to a wide receiver and shadows his opponent throughout the entire play. This is done to throw off the timing between quarterback and the receiver, although it leaves the DB susceptible to a deep pass, especially if the receiver is the faster of the two players. The opposite of press is cushion coverage, where the DB plays a number of yards off the line of scrimmage at the start of the play. Doing this can take away the deep pass but leaves the receiver open on quick, short routes underneath.

Technique

The technique a defensive lineman plays is equivalent to where he lines up before the snap. Directly across from the center is the zero-technique, between center and guards is one, over the guard is two, between guard and tackle is three, etc. Technique corresponds directly with the gaps, as players who play specific techniques are responsible for plugging those gaps. Greg Cosell of NFL Films says that the two terms go hand in hand, though they describe different aspects of the game.

"The technique refers to the position of the player; the gap refers to the actual spot on the field," said Cosell. "So, a one-technique defensive tackle would be aligned on the outside shoulder of the offensive center, making him an A-gap player."

The box

Area of the field, usually within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, that defenses try to load with players in an attempt to stop an opponent's running game.

Two-, three-, four-point stance

The number of points in a stance is equal to the number of parts of the body a player has touching the ground before the ball is snapped. If they are standing upright, with their arms to their side, they're in a two-point stance. This is generally used by linebackers who want to confuse a quarterback about whether they are going to rush or drop back in coverage.

The three-point stance is most common for offensive linemen, who, along with their feet, also put one hand on the ground at the start of the play for better leverage.

Four-point stances are often used by defensive ends, who put both hands on the turf to improve acceleration once the ball is snapped.

Zone blitz

Instead of having the defensive line rush the passer, the linebackers stay back to cover short passes and the secondary guard against deep throws, a zone blitz mixes it up. Sometimes a linebacker will rush the passer, and a defensive end will drop back in coverage. Other times a safety will blitz along with a linebacker. There are endless combinations possible, usually coming from the mind of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is credited with creating the zone blitz.

"What you have is, generally speaking, linebackers or safeties rushing the quarterback, and linemen dropping back and playing a zone," Casserly explained. "With a zone, if a receiver beats (a defender), there is still a chance to make a tackle, as opposed to giving up a big play in man-to-man."

 

Related link: Offense: What does that term mean?

If there's a term we've forgotten or one you'd like to know more about, e-mail ekaberon@pfwmedia.com and we may include it in an updated version.

For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.

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