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Understanding Defensive Formations In Football

Similar to how the offense lines up in different varieties of formations, defenses have formations as well. As the offense will line up in the “I-formation” or the “Wing-T,” defensive formations contain numbers that typically identify the defensive lineman and the linebackers.

Defensive formations are named after the number of defensive linemen and linebackers. For example, and 3-4 defense features 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers. Each defensive formation is run based on the offense’s personnel.

In this article, we will explain defensive fronts and how they can be used to defeat the offense.

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Defensive Formations In Football

The number system is universally known to identify defenses. Here is the breakdown:

1st Number = Defensive Lineman
2nd Number = Linebackers

The number not shown or mentioned is the defensive backs. It’s assumed the defensive backs will complete the number of players on the field. For example:

A 4-3 defense will have 7 defensive linemen and linebackers on the field (4 defensive linemen + 3 linebackers). Because there are 11 players on the field at one time, it’s understood there must be 4 defensive backs on the field (7 defensive linemen/linebackers + 4 defensive backs).

4-3 Defense In Football

To start, let’s take a look at the 4-3 defense, one of the most basic defensive sets. The 4-3 defense includes:

4 Defensive Lineman
– 2 Interior Defensive Tackles
– 2 Exterior Defensive Ends

3 Linebackers
– 1 Middle Linebacker
– 2 Outside Linebackers

4-3 defense

The 4-3 is also one of the more balanced defensive sets, as it allows teams to be aggressive to the run and have enough defenders to play the pass effectively.

3-4 Defense In Football

The 3-4 defense, similar to the 4-3 defense, has 7 players located within the 5 offensive linemen frame.

3 Defensive Lineman
– 1 Nose Tackle
– 2 Defensive Ends

4 Linebackers
– 2 Inside Linebackers
– 2 Outside Linebackers

3-4 defense

The 3-4 defense is unique because it has fewer guys at the point of attack on the line of scrimmage but is extremely effective for slanting and confusing defenses.

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3-3 Stack In Football

Like the 3-4 defense, the 3-3 stack has become a popular formation to counter against the spread passing attack. It lacks in lineman at the point of attack; it makes up in the passing game by adding an extra defender to the mix.

3 Defensive Lineman
– 1 Nose Tackle
– 2 Defensive Ends

3 Linebackers
– 1 Middle Linebacker
– 2 Outside Linebackers

3-3 Stack

The 3-3 stack is relatively new as the spread offense has emerged. Teams can be aggressive from the defensive back and linebacker position, utilizing more speed on the field.

5-2 Defense In Football

The 5-2 defense is the first defense on our list that tips the balance of run/pass support. 7 players remain in the frame of the defense. However, there are more players (5) on the line of scrimmage. Let’s break it down:

5 Defensive Lineman
– 1 Nose Guard
– 2 Defensive Tackles
– 2 Defensive Ends

2 Linebackers
– 2 Inside Linebackers

5-2 defense

The 5-2 is a great run-stopping formation to enable linebackers to get free and make plays. It does, however, limit the pass defense to only 6 passing defenders.

6-2 Defense In Football

The 6-2 formation is often seen in goal-line sets, where the team is heavily anticipating run. Let’s break down the 6-2 defense:

Defensive Lineman
– 2 Nose Tackles ( one on each side of the center)
– 2 Interior Defensive Lineman
– 2 Exterior Defensive Lineman

– 2 Interior Linebackers

6-2 defense

Teams will also have their defensive lineman line up in 4 point stances, getting as low as possible to create a pile.

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What Is The Best Defensive Formation?

There is no best defensive formation. Everything comes down to technique and matching personnel on the field.

For example, if the offense has a tight end and a full back on the field, it’s advantageous for the defense to have another linebacker on the field. This is so the defense can match the size that the offense presents.

On the other hand, if the offense has 4 receivers on the field, it will be in the defense’s favor to have more defensive backs on the field. This is to counteract the speed of the offense.

Each coach has their own philosophy on how defensive formation should be run. No one team is the same, as techniques, schemes, and even blitz patterns change from team to team.

The bottom line is that as long as gaps are covered in the run game, it will be hard for the offense to run the football.

If the defense can play an effective zone and man coverage, the defense will be effective in the passing game. No matter how many people are on the line of scrimmage, it comes down to playing both run and pass defense to be a dominant defense.

What Defensive Scheme Should I Run?

There is no perfect scheme. Each coach has his own philosophy on which scheme works the best for the players that they have. Built into the scheme is a plethora of blitzes, coverages, and ways to counteract the offense’s game plan.

The personnel and scheme that you should run should fit the players you have on your roster.

For instance, if your team has 3 big, strong defensive linemen with a small linebacker core, it might be beneficial to run a 3-4. This way, the big lineman can fight against the offensive lineman while having more players drop back into pass coverage.

Each scheme should be predicated on the players and the coach’s comfort with teaching techniques/reads.


Defensive formations are named after the defensive lineman and linebackers that are on the field. These are the most common defensive formations:

  • 3-4
  • 4-3
  • 4-4
  • 5-2
  • 6-2

Variations of these defenses have shown up on film and can be adjusted based on the offense’s formation.

When learning defensive formations, understand that the coaches can alter their scheme at any time and they often change based on the offense’s intent and the down and distance.

These are the most common defensive formations played from the youth, college, and professional levels. What are your favorite defensive formations? Let us know in the comment section below what’s been most effective for you.

Learn more about defense and how coaches use these formations to roll coverages, blitz the quarterback and disrupt blocking schemes at our blog!