How to Play Defensive Tackle

From Alignment to Assignment to Snap

Dana Stubblefield playing defense during a game.
Dana Stubblefield #94, Defensive Tackle for the Washington Redskins. Ezra Shaw /Getty Images

Typically the largest and strongest players on a defensive line, defensive tackles are positioned on the inside of the line and charged with covering gaps and attempting to sack the quarterback. These two tackles fight play after play in the trenches, doing everything they can to bounce run plays to the outside or to rush the quarterback when a pass play is called.

Defensive tackles have to be quick, strong, durable, and constantly on the lookout for the opponent's next moves and opportunities to tackle the runner or quarterback all while preventing the ball from moving further down the field.

Playing defensive tackle requires training in alignment, assignments, and recognizing defensive and offensive plays, and there are a variety of strategies and theories about what makes the best defensive tackles.

Alignments and Assignments of the Defensive Tackle

Depending on what type of defensive play has been called, the defensive tackle lines up on his assigned man or his assigned gap—the space between the offensive linemen positioned on the other side of the scrimmage line—after the huddle but before the play starts. From here, he'll have to pay especially close attention to the offense as the defensive tackle may need to take out the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, depending on the play.

In order to avoid the offensive blockers, defensive tackles should begin each play in either a three or four-point stance, never standing straight up. Once the alignment has been set and the opposing players have gotten into position, the defensive tackle can reposition to best suit their assignments.

The defensive tackle is either charged with clogging up the gap he's assigned to, or he might be assigned to rush past his man to try to get to the quarterback. The defensive tackle may be responsible for covering more than one gap. A defensive tackle's true task is to beat out the offensive line—the more often a defensive tackle wins this battle, the more likely it is that the defense will stop the play.

When the Ball Is Snapped 

The defensive tackle is going to fire off toward the ball as hard as he can when it's snapped to begin the play. At the same time, he must anticipate what the offensive linemen are going to do as he is most likely going to be the target of more than one blocker coming at him from different angles. Whichever way he gets blocked, he will "fight pressure with pressure" to go the opposite direction of where the offensive lineman is trying to push him. 

When a defensive tackle reads a run, he'll fight pressure with pressure to fill his assigned gap and either make the tackle or cause the play to bounce outside. If he reads a pass, he must get separation, avoiding and eluding the offensive blockers to reach the quarterback in his pass rush lane.

As a general rule, defensive tackles push the pocket—the area of protection provided to the quarterback by his offensive line—in from the front while the defensive ends will attack the pocket from the outside. The idea is to collapse the pocket so the quarterback is open and vulnerable.