What Does Contain Mean In Football?

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

In football, coaches and broadcasters often use the term “contain” when describing defensive play. Containing offensive players is an important part of the defensive strategy. What exactly does containing mean?

In football, “contain” means maintaining outside leverage and keeping the offensive player to the inside. Defensive coaches often have players whose responsibility is not to allow offensive players to get outside.

This article will show you what containing means and why it’s important for a defense.

What Does Contain Mean In Football?

When a defense contains an offensive player, its sole purpose is to ensure the offensive player doesn’t get outside of the defensive player.

Containing is important in football because defensives often have more players near the line of scrimmage and in between the tackles than they do outside.

Containing players means keeping them to the inside shoulder to cut back where all of the other defensive players are.

Why Do Defenses Contain?

Defenses will contain the offensive players to force the player back inside. When the running back goes inside, there’s a good chance other defensive players are waiting to tackle the running.

If the offensive player can get around the contain player, there will be fewer people toward the outside to tackle the running back. Remember, the offense is all about spacing and getting the best athletes into an open area.

For the defense to force offensive players inside, the defensive player will often turn their shoulders, facing the running back. They will not allow him to get to the outside shoulder, forcing the running back to cut back inside.

Remember, the offensive player will often take the path of least resistance. They don’t want to be hit or tackled, so naturally, the running back will cut back inside.

Coaches will often have schemes designed, by formation, to make sure the running back is always cutting back.

Example Of Containing

Coaches will have different schemes that involve the containment of a running back or an offensive player.

Teams may use a defensive end, who plays just outside the tackle, to hold the edge and force everything back to the linebackers.

The example below is a 4-3 defense, which often relies on the defensive end to ensure that everything is forced back inside. When the defensive end is contained, teams can have their linebackers, and the interior defensive line is more aggressive.

Contain the offense with defensive ends

Other teams may use an outside backer or safety to come flying up to contain the defenses. In the example below, often, teams will have their 3-4 outside linebackers be the contain player. This player plays the tight end and ensures he doesn’t hook block him to the inside.

Contain offense with linebackers

The 3-4 defensive is primarily responsible for forcing players to run to the outside, which then the speedier linebackers and safeties can run the football down.

This is common among defenses against spread offenses because the spread system likes to take advantage of space. Forcing offensive players to run laterally will ultimately give way to the defensive players to run it down.

Last, teams who like to spill (or force the running back to the sideline) will often have the cornerbacks run up and contain the running back from getting outside of them.

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Other Terms For Contain

Football is an innovative world. Some coaches may use the term contain, or they will use other terms that coaches have recognized. These terms are the following:

  • Lever
  • Cage
  • Kick Back

These terms mean the same thing, but coaches will use them based on their terminology for their defense.

There is no wrong or correct term; whichever fits the coach and the player learning the concept. Containing on defense is an essential skill that must be mastered to make defensive schemes work properly.

We recommend using any of the contain terminology that best fits your players. If the word “contain” or “cage” can build the mental image, then use that term.

Keep Learning

Defensive coordinators and defensive coaches will use the term repeatedly contain when trying to get their outside players to force the running back or quarterback inside.

The cornerstone of defenses is often to make sure the contain player is constantly ready and forcing players to the inside. Teams may even line this player up in a wider alignment to ensure he doesn’t get beat outside.

No matter the level of football, teams will rely on contain players to force the runner back to the defense’s teeth.

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If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page here.

What terms do you use? Let us know on Twitter (@vIQtorysports) and share your thoughts on what you use for containing the offensive players.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.