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What Do These Defensive/Special Teams Football Terms Mean?

Want to understand football defensive terminology better?  Here is a look at some of the more specific terms.

4-3 vs 3-4: The two most common types of defenses.  A 4-3 defense is more traditional and based around power and execution.  There are four defensive linemen (two defensive tackles in the interior and two defensive ends on the outside) and three linebackers (one middle and two on the outside).  A 3-4 defense is newer and relies heavily on speed, athleticism, versatility, and deception.  There are more options in terms in blitz packages and more gap responsibility.  There’s also more room for error, as outside linebackers are more of a hybrid position in the 3-4 between ends and linebackers and may have trouble adjusting.  There are three defensive lineman (one nose tackle who is often double teamed and two ends) and four linebackers (two middle and two outside).

Nickel: A defensive substitute package where a linebacker goes out of the game and a defensive back, usually a third cornerback but sometimes a safety, comes into the game.  This is employed more for obvious passing downs.  It’s called nickel because there are now five defensive backs on the field.

Dime: Another defensive alignment where two linebackers go off the field and two defensive backs come in to play.  This is used for even more obvious passing downs because defensive backs offer more speed and coverage skills.

Gunner: The player lined up closest to the sideline and farthest from everyone else on the punt formation.  The gunners, there are two on punts, are the fastest players on the punt team.  They are asked to fly down the field and fight off their blocks to make tackles.

Strong safety: These safeties are typically more aggressive against the run, are involved in more man coverage, and play closer to the line of scrimmage or in the box as some like to call it.  They tend to blitz a bit more than free safeties and should be tough tacklers.  Examples include Kam Chancellor and Eric Berry.

Free safety: These safeties are asked to be big time play-makers and ball hawks, running sideline to sideline to defend against the deep pass.  They are the last line of defense, mostly engaged in large zone coverages.  Examples include Ed Reed and Harrison Smith.

Prevent: A defensive coverage where all defensive backs and linebackers play much more deep than usual; usually used during the last few plays of a half when the offensive is trying to complete a Hail Mary (a last chance prayer of a pass to the endzone).

Mike, Will, Sam, and Mo: No, these are not four friends who get together for poker games.  Mike is the middle linebacker, a tackling machine, and a hustler, sideline to sideline player in pursuit.  Mike calls out defensive adjustments and is like the quarterback of the defense.  Ray Lewis is a perfect example.  Mo is very similar to Mike and is only used in the 3-4 defense as the other middle linebacker.  Sam is the strong side outside linebacker, a versatile player who must be able to play the run and close the gap as well as cover tight ends and cover the sidelines.  Will is in good position to stop the run because he plays on the weak side.  He may also be asked to cover slot receivers.

Squib kick: A kickoff in which the ball is kicked hard and fast down the middle of the field with little hang time.  The ball usually bounces around a lot before a kick returner picks it up. The point of a squib kick is to either kick the ball away from a dangerous return man or when your team is ahead, to decrease the chance of a big return right before halftime or the end of the game.

Pooch punt: Sort of the same concept of a squib kick, the pooch punt is a fast line drive, directional kick to avoid a long return.

Icing the kicker: A coaching strategy and decision to call a timeout just seconds before the opponent’s kicker attempts a game-tying or game-winning field goal.  The thinking behind this move is that you’ll mess with the kicker’s mindset, otherwise known as “icing”, so that he will miss the kick.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

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