It’s one of the most common refrains in professional sports, and it’s certainly true in the NFL – “Defense wins championships.”
Let’s take a look at some of the most common (and effective) defenses in football.
The 4-3 Defense
This is basically Football Defense 101. It dates back to the birth of the modern era with Tom Landry, who learned the basics of it in the 50s before tinkering with it and making it the defensive style at the heart of the Dallas Cowboys’ famed Doomsday Defense in the 60s and 70s. The Cowboys and their AFC rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers and their Steel Curtain, were the teams of the 70s, winning a combined 6 of the decade’s 10 Super Bowls, solidifying their reputation as two of the greatest defenses in NFL history and the 4-3 as the de facto defense for decades.
So, what is the 4-3? Four down linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs – it’s as simple as that. This formation is incredibly balanced and versatile, making it adaptable to just about any situation.
The 3-4 Defense
The 3-4 is the reverse of the 4-3 – three linemen, four linebackers. As defenses like Denver’s Orange Crush in the 70s began to blitz more, this four linebacker set became more popular.
This places a lot of pressure on the nose tackle (the lineman in the middle) to generate double the pressure a lineman typically would, while the two “inside” linebackers fill the gap and two “outside” linebackers typically race near or around the edge toward the quarterback and running backs.
The Nickel Defense
As offenses began to pass more, defenses with more defensive backs became in vogue. The nickel makes use of five defensive backs, playing either man-to-man or (in the case of one or more safeties) zone coverage over part of the field.
The 46 Defense
“Common” or not, the 1985 Bears’ vaunted 46 defense must be included here, given how legendary it is. With four down linemen and six linebackers, the Bears overwhelmed opponents with one of the most effective and terrifying defenses in NFL history. While sending up to 10 of its 11 defensive players after the quarterback left the secondary open, the ’85 Bears’ defense was so smothering it rarely mattered, as they were able to rush and take down quarterbacks and running backs long before they could ever get anywhere.
From standard and versatile to overwhelming brute force, great defense has, and always will, be a winner.