Defensive back

What is the Definition of A Defensive Back in American Football?

The defensive back position in American Football is a critical component of a team’s defense, requiring a combination of speed, agility, and intelligence. As part of the defensive backfield, these athletes have the responsibility of defending against passing plays and providing support during running plays. They must possess quick reflexes and strong communication skills to coordinate with other players on the field.

There are multiple types of defensive backs, including cornerbacks and safeties, each with their specific roles and responsibilities. A cornerback typically covers wide receivers, while safeties provide a last line of defense and help prevent deep passing plays. These positions demand adaptability, with players required to employ various techniques in response to the dynamic strategies employed by opposing teams.

Key Takeaways

  • Defensive backs are vital to a team’s defense, focusing on pass coverage and run support
  • The position includes cornerbacks and safeties, each with distinct roles and responsibilities
  • Key attributes for success as a defensive back include speed, agility, and intelligence

Defensive Back Position Types


The main focus of cornerbacks in American Football is to cover the opposing team’s wide receivers. Typically, they play closer to the line of scrimmage and the sideline, executing man-to-man coverage or zone coverage depending on the defensive play called. Cornerbacks possess good speed, agility, and quickness to match up with the wide receivers, pursuing them throughout their routes.

Some cornerbacks specialize in press coverage, where they engage the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage to disrupt their routes. Others excel in off coverage, where they play some distance away from the receivers, using their quickness to break on the ball and make plays.


Safeties are the last line of defense in American Football and play further back near the center of the field. Their primary responsibility is to provide help on deep pass plays, preventing long touchdowns. There are two main types of safeties:

  • Free Safety (FS): They possess strong coverage skills and are often the most athletic player in the secondary. The free safety typically roams the deep middle of the field, reading the quarterback’s eyes and breaking on the ball when they see a pass developing. They must have great speed and range to cover a larger area of the field.
  • Strong Safety (SS): The strong safety is usually a more physical player who plays closer to the line of scrimmage to help with run support and short to intermediate pass coverage. They need to have good tackling skills and, in some cases, be able to cover tight ends, slot receivers, or running backs in man coverage.

In conclusion, defensive backs are split into two main types: cornerbacks, who cover wide receivers near the sideline, and safeties, acting as the last line of defense. Each type has its unique responsibilities and physical traits that they bring to their team’s defensive schemes.

Role of a Defensive Back

Pass Coverage

Defensive backs play a crucial role in pass coverage. They can either be assigned zone coverage or man coverage. In zone coverage, a defensive back is responsible for covering a specific area of the field. If a receiver enters their zone, they keep them covered until they exit. In man coverage, a defensive back is assigned to cover a specific receiver, staying with them throughout the entire play.

Run Support

While primarily responsible for pass coverage, defensive backs must also contribute in run support. They must be able to read the play quickly and react accordingly. If they recognize that it’s a running play, they should move forward to help stop the running back. Their positioning and angle of approach are crucial in preventing big plays on the ground.


Tackling is a vital skill for defensive backs. They must be effective tacklers in both open-field and closed situations. Open-field tackling involves bringing down the ball carrier in a one-on-one situation, often in a wide-open space. Defensive backs must also be able to shed blocks from offensive players and make tackles in more confined areas of the field.

Ball Skills

In addition to coverage and tackling, ball skills are essential for defensive backs. They must have the ability to locate and track the ball in the air, break up passes, and intercept the ball if possible. Good ball skills can result in game-changing plays, such as interceptions and pass breakups, which can significantly impact the outcome of a game.

Key Attributes for Defensive Backs

Speed and Agility

Defensive backs need to be fast and agile to keep up with wide receivers and tight ends in pass coverage. Quickness is crucial for changing direction and reacting to an opponent’s movements. Superior agility enables them to smoothly transition from a backpedal to a sprint and make sudden, precise movements.

Body Positioning

Proper body positioning is vital for a defensive back to maintain control and effectively cover an assigned area of the field. A defensive back needs to keep a low stance, with knees bent and hips square, to facilitate quick and decisive movements. Maintaining good body positioning also helps the defensive back break up passes by staying between the receiver and the ball.


Defensive backs should be physical in their approach to play, as they may need to engage with opposing players through bump-and-run tactics, or by pressuring and jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. They must be able to tackle effectively to provide run support after the pass threat is eliminated. Moreover, physicality enables them to successfully contest jump balls and limit the success of opposing receivers.


An essential attribute for a defensive back is awareness, as it allows them to read and react to an offense’s intentions. They must have a keen understanding of offensive formations and route concepts to anticipate an opponent’s actions. Additionally, defensive backs should be able to recognize situational factors, such as down and distance, to adjust their coverage and positioning accordingly.

Defensive Back Techniques

Man-to-Man Coverage

Man-to-man coverage requires the defensive back (DB) to cover a specific offensive player, usually a wide receiver, throughout the entire play. DBs must have a strong skill set, including quickness, agility, and the ability to mirror the receiver. Techniques such as staying low, keeping feet close to the ground, and using their arms like they were running forward are crucial in successful man-to-man coverage.

Zone Coverage

In zone coverage, DBs cover a designated area of the field rather than a specific player. This allows them to read the quarterback’s eyes and react to the ball once it’s thrown. Proper stance, positioning and understanding of the assigned zone are key elements of good zone coverage. DBs must be able to quickly identify and close in on receivers who enter their zone while demonstrating teamwork with their fellow defensive backs to avoid coverage gaps.

Press Coverage

Press coverage is a technique where the defensive back lines up close to the line of scrimmage, usually within a yard, and attempts to disrupt the receiver’s route by initiating contact immediately after the snap. This approach requires strength, physicality, and exceptional hand-eye coordination in order to effectively jam the receiver. Proper footwork and maintaining a low center of gravity are crucial for a defensive back to avoid getting beaten off the line.


Off-coverage is a technique where the defensive back lines up farther off the line of scrimmage, giving some cushion between themselves and the receiver. This allows the DB to maintain a wider field of vision and be better prepared to react to the route of the receiver. The key to successful off-coverage is balance, quick reaction time, and efficient backpedaling, which enables the defensive back to maintain a proper distance and break on the ball when it’s thrown.

Famous Defensive Backs

Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive backs in NFL history. Known for his exceptional athleticism and speed, Sanders played as a cornerback and was also a dangerous return man. Nicknamed “Prime Time” and “Neon Deion,” he had a remarkable career spanning 14 seasons with teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, and the Baltimore Ravens. Sanders was renowned for his excellent coverage skills and ball-hawking abilities, resulting in 53 career interceptions.

Rod Woodson

Another legendary figure among defensive backs, Rod Woodson was known for his remarkable versatility. Woodson played as a cornerback, free safety, and strong safety throughout his 17-year NFL career. He played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, and Oakland Raiders. Woodson’s illustrious career boasts numerous achievements, including 71 interceptions, which ranks third in NFL history. His skillset and impact on the game earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson made a name for himself in the NFL as both a cornerback and safety. He played 18 seasons with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers. Woodson’s career highlights include:

  • 65 career interceptions, ranking fifth in NFL history
  • 13 defensive touchdowns
  • 2009 Defensive Player of the Year
  • Super Bowl XLV champion

Charles Woodson’s exceptional play earned him the respect of his peers and fans, making him one of the most prominent defensive backs in NFL history.

Darrelle Revis

Darrelle Revis rose to prominence as a shutdown cornerback during his time with the New York Jets, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Kansas City Chiefs. Revis Island, as he was famously known, was a term coined to describe his ability to isolate an opposing team’s top wide receiver effectively. In his 11-year career, Revis recorded 29 interceptions, earning him four first-team All-Pro selections and seven Pro Bowl invitations. His outstanding play contributed to a Super Bowl XLIX victory with the New England Patriots.