Defensive Lineman Are the First Line of Defense

It's a Thankless Job Minding the Gap

Defensive Lineman
KT King/flickr/CC BY 2.0

The defensive line on a football team is made up of the biggest and strongest players on the defense. The defensive linemen hold the line as if in the trenches, where they battle with offensive linemen play after play. It is their job to wreak havoc on the offensive side's blocking and passing schemes.

In a typical defensive line formation, there are two defensive ends and two defensive tackles and in some cases, a nose tackle, also known as a nose guard who serves as one of those defensive tackles. The defensive tackles play in the center and the defensive ends play on the outside of the tackles.

In special instances, such as goalline situations, additional linemen may be brought in or linebackers may move up to the line of scrimmage to stop the short run. Over the years, increasingly, defensive linemen are called on to drop in for pass coverage protection, particularly in a zone defense situation.

The Makings of a Good Defensive Lineman

Good defensive linemen are big, strong and quick. The defensive line works with the linebackers to try to control the line of scrimmage. They have to react to the snap of the ball and get upfield to jam up the offense.

On running plays, the goal is to tackle the ball carrier. It is the job of the defensive line to maintain their original formation, that is even spacing without holes or gaps, and also prevent any members of the opposing offensive line from successfully engaging the linebackers, who chase down the ball carrier. Usually, the defensive tackles are the most skilled run defenders on the team.

In a pass play, a good defensive lineman will try to tackle the quarterback, with a sack, or apply pressure to disrupt the throw. If a lineman can disrupt the timing of the throw, or make the quarterback hesitate in making the throw, the lineman has succeeded.

In most cases, the defensive linemen have thankless jobs. On most plays, a defensive lineman holds up a blocker or two, and the linebacker makes the tackle. It is usually the linebacker that gets all the acclaim, meanwhile, it is the linemen who are holding the line and tiring out the players first. Linemen are usually the first to disable the offense. They are truly the first line of defense.

Common Defensive Formations

The 4-3 defensive formation, most commonly used in the NFL, employs two defensive tackles and a defensive line of four men, with three linebackers behind them. A 3-4 formation uses a nose tackle and a defensive line of three men with four linebackers behind them. However, defensive ends in a typical 3-4 formation have responsibilities more similar to a 4-3 defensive tackle than 4-3 defensive ends.

Because the defense does not know whether the offense is attempting to run a passing play or a running play or whether a quarterback will give up on an attempt to pass and instead run with the ball, the defense must balance passing and running strategies. In some situations, running around offensive linemen and avoiding contact may allow a defensive player to put faster pressure on a quarterback, but it also leaves a hole in the defensive line and frees an offensive lineman to engage a linebacker, which can enable a big running play.

Defensive linemen, particularly defensive ends, usually do more running than offensive linemen. Defensive ends tend to be somewhat lighter and faster.

Stellar Defensive Linemen

Always the first line of defense, but not usually the first to take the spotlight. There are some defensive linemen who are superstars in their own right.

Most agree Reggie White, the “Minister of Defense,” who played defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers is widely considered the greatest defensive lineman to ever play the game. White took down opposing quarterbacks 198 times in 15 seasons, the second most in NFL history. He was equally impressive shutting down the run, amassing 1,112 tackles during his Hall of Fame career.

Another huge star, Bruce Smith, who played defensive end for the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins, is widely considered one of the most dominant players in NFL history. Smith is the all-time sack leader with 200, nudging past White.