Defensive Back Positions - What Is a Defensive Back?

What Does a Defensive Back Do?

Defensive backs, known collectively as the secondary, are the four or five defensive football players charged with pass coverage and with run support after the pass threat is gone. They may be cornerbacks or safeties. They're the defensive backfield, positioned behind the linebackers or near the sidelines, and they're unquestionably the fastest and quickest members of the defensive unit. They're responsible for defending against long pass plays that take place far behind the linebackers.



Most defensive formations use two cornerbacks. These backs are typically charged with covering the offense's receivers. Their goal is to match strides with the receiver to try to bat away or intercept a pass, or to tackle the receiver as immediately as possible if the ball is caught so he can't run for the end zone. They often take up their positions on the sides of the field. 


There are typically two safeties in the secondary: a strong safety and a free safety. They're positioned between the cornerbacks at the start of the play. As the name suggests, the free safety can adjust to the anticipated play. He may come forward toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped to cover a short pass, or he may drop back to assist the cornerbacks on a long pass. The strong safety may also come forward to defend against running plays. 

Nickel and Dime Defensive Formations

When it's pretty clear that the offense is going to pass the ball such as in third down and long yardage situations, the defense can add defensive backs to its formation to try to prevent a completed pass.

The extra backs must substitute for one of the defensive linemen or linebackers -- the team is still limited to 11 defensive men on the field, so someone must come out so the additional defensive backs can go in. 

When one defensive back is added, it's a nickel package. When two are added for a total of six players in the secondary, it's called a dime formation or dimeback.


How to Play the Positions in the Defensive Backfield

The secondary is like a small team within a team, as are the linebackers and defensive linemen. A fast, versatile, physical secondary is critical to the success of a football team. Defensive backs have to communicate well with each other as they determine the pass strength of the formation. They have to adjust as the offense runs motion and formation changes to ensure that they're in the best possible position to stop the big pass plays during the game. 

Here's some specific information about how to play each of the main positions in the defensive backfield:

How to Play Free Safety
How to Play Strong Safety
How to Play Cornerback
How to Play Nickel Back