Whether it’s the losing end of a touchdown pass or a game-saving interception, defensive backs (DBs) are part of football’s biggest plays. In one play, a DB may fight a 6’4” receiver on a high pass and on the next play chase a running back racing down the sideline. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to answer…
What is a DB in football?
A DB is a player lined up behind defensive linemen and linebackers. DBs are critical on defense because they’re responsible for covering wide receivers. A group of DBs in a defensive scheme is called the “secondary” because they’re the next line of defense behind linemen and linebackers.
With that said, that’s just a snapshot of the position and if you’d like to learn more about what defensive backs do and some of the best DBs to ever play – continue reading.
What Do Defensive Backs Do?
Defensive backs are versatile athletes that have many different responsibilities throughout a game. Depending on the play call, DBs may be required to play man defense, zone coverage, or blitz.
In man coverage, a DB must defend a specific offensive player. Usually, DBs defend wide receivers, but they may also pick up assignments to cover running backs or tight ends. Wherever their opponent runs, a DB must keep up. They need to be ready to deflect passes or tackle their opponents if they’ve already caught the ball.
In zone coverage, a DB must defend a specific area – or “zone” – on the field. When the quarterback throws a ball near their zone, a DB must be ready to intercept or deflect the pass. If a ball carrier breaks toward their zone, a DB is responsible for making the tackle.
Sometimes, coaches call plays that involve a DB blitz. A blitz is a defensive play where more than four players rush the quarterback (usually it’s four defensive linemen plus at least one non-defensive lineman).
The offense doesn’t expect DB blitzes because the defensive back must run a long way to get to the line of scrimmage. A DB blitz is risky for the defense because it leaves an open spot for the quarterback to throw downfield. If the DB blitz works, however, it’ll pay off nicely for the defense. The extra player blitzing may tackle the QB for a sack or force a bad throw.
Because they’re responsible for stopping an offense’s playmakers, DBs must be good all-around athletes. They need the quickness and speed to keep up with the fastest offensive players and have high verticals to compete with taller receivers. When tackling or contesting a pass, DBs need the strength to not get outmuscled by bigger players.
How to Play Defensive Back
Defensive backs must have awareness, quickness, and coordination to be successful. They must also line up in proper position before the snap. There are several ways for defensive backs to line up. Each type of coverage dictates how they’re going to defend after the snap. These are different types of coverage for defensive backs.
Man coverage requires a DB to keep up with his assigned opponent – a wide receiver, running back, or tight end. If your team plays effective man coverage, the opposing quarterback will not have any open receivers to throw the ball to. There are risks of playing man coverage, though. A wide receiver skilled at running routes can juke or turn, forcing the DB to change direction. If the DB overreacts, he’ll lose the receiver and risk giving up a pass completion.
Zone coverage requires a DB to cover a specific part of the field. The advantage to zone defense is that wide receivers’ complicated routes won’t throw the defenders off-guard. DBs anticipate the throw and only pursue receivers after the ball is thrown. If a pass comes to your zone, be ready to intercept it or prevent a receiver from catching it! The biggest risk of zone coverage is that good quarterbacks can easily find throwing spots between zones.
Press coverage is for defensive backs who want to disrupt wide receivers’ routes at the beginning of each play. In press coverage, a DB gets close to the line of scrimmage and stands facing the receiver he’s covering. When the ball is snapped, the DB attempts to block the receiver’s path. If the wide receiver can’t run his normal route, the play won’t end how it was drawn up.
Press coverage comes with its risks. If the DB is unsuccessful at blocking or disrupting the receiver’s route, the receiver can break open downfield. To keep up, the DB must backpedal or turn around and chase the receiver. Poor execution of press coverage may lead to a big play for the offense!
What Are Cornerbacks in Football
Cornerback is a position in the defensive back group. Pre-snap, cornerbacks typically line up near the “corner” area where the sideline meets the line of scrimmage. Cornerbacks line up this way because they’re usually assigned to defend wide receivers. A conventional defensive scheme features two cornerbacks, one for each side of the field.
What do Cornerbacks Do in Football?
A cornerback’s primary responsibility is defending the opponents’ wide receivers. On pass plays, cornerbacks try to prevent receivers from catching passes. If defended well from the start, a wide receiver might not even have the ball thrown in his direction. If the cornerback can’t intercept a pass, he’ll try to knock the ball away or obstruct the receiver.
When the offense calls a run play, a cornerback’s duties change. The main goal is stopping the ball from advancing, so the focus shifts from covering receivers to tackling the ball carrier. When the receiver gets in a blocking stance after the snap, this hints that a run play is in the works. The cornerback must find a way to get past the receiver.
Sometimes, run plays will still have receivers running routes to pull defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage. When this happens, the cornerbacks should pay attention to the receiver ending his route or turning around to block downfield.
Coaches sometimes call plays for their cornerbacks to blitz. In a blitz, the defense sends another pass rusher in addition to the defensive line. Cornerback blitzes are high-risk but high-reward plays.
Because a blitzing cornerback comes from outside the tackle box, there won’t be an offensive lineman or tight end there to block him. If he’s coming from the quarterback’s blindside, the quarterback will never see him coming.
This could lead to an easy sack due to the QB thinking he has more time to throw. If the cornerback is blitzing from where the quarterback can see him, it may lead to a hurried throw.
The downside to cornerback blitzes is that they leave openings for giving up yardage. If a quarterback detects the blitz, he knows there’s less coverage on his wide receivers. The cornerback blitz usually means there’s one of two opportunities.
There will likely be room for a quick pass to the zone that the cornerback came from. If another defender steps in to cover the area or assigned receiver, the quarterback will realize he can throw a deep pass. When the safety moves up to cover a receiver, there’s more room to throw downfield.
Cornerback vs Defensive Back
Cornerback is a position within the defensive back position group. Conventional defensive schemes use four defensive backs: two cornerbacks, one free safety, and one strong safety. Schemes more focused on stopping the pass may use five defensive backs. This fifth defensive back is called the “nickelback.”
At most, there are two cornerback spots on a defensive lineup. Even if you have four defensive backs on the field whose primary position is cornerback, only two of them are playing cornerback at that time.
What Are Safeties in Football?
Like cornerbacks, safety is a position within the defensive back position group. Pre-snap, safeties are lined up furthest away from the line of scrimmage. They’re the last line of defense – or the “safety” net – between the line of scrimmage and the endzone.
Safeties are primarily responsible for deep pass coverage; they pick up receivers running deep routes and help cornerbacks cover receivers. Safeties may also be assigned to move toward the line of scrimmage to help defend against running plays. There are two types of safeties: free safety and strong safety.
Safeties frequently play deep zone coverage. You can usually tell what kind of deep coverage they’re playing based on how many DBs take zones after the snap.
In a cover-one defense, one safety drops back into a zone while his teammates play man defense. In cover-two, both safeties drop back into zone coverage. Cover-twos may see the rest of the team in man coverage, but they could also be set for linebackers and cornerbacks to play zone too. In cover-three and cover-four, safeties and corners play deep zone defense.
Best Defensive Backs in NFL History
Great defensive backs can keep up with the fastest runners, leap with the tallest receivers, and take advantage of poorly thrown passes. The best defensive backs, however, are so good that quarterbacks are terrified to throw in their direction! For this reason, cornerback Deion Sanders is one of the best defensive backs in NFL history.
Sanders’ play introduced a new archetype of defensive backs – the shutdown corner. Sanders was considered a shutdown corner because he was so skilled that he “shut down” his half of the field. Quarterbacks refused to throw to players whom Sanders was covering.
While quarterbacks usually avoided throwing at his assignments, Sanders took advantage whenever the ball headed in his direction. In his NFL career, Sanders racked up 53 interceptions, nine of which he returned for touchdowns!
Although he retired at age 34, Sanders was such a great athlete and fierce competitor that he came back to play three years later. At age 37, Sanders signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He played two more seasons before retiring for a final time.
Ed Reed is another one of the NFL’s greatest defensive backs. At 5’11”, Reed wasn’t the biggest safety in the league, but he was one of its hardest hitters and most feared defensive players.
Reed played 12 of his 13 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. He led the NFL in interceptions three times and racked up more than 600 tackles. He was the NFL’s 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, an award that safeties rarely win. Most importantly, Reed finally won a Super Bowl in 2012, his last season with the Ravens.
Best Defensive Backs in College Football History
Only one player has won college football’s Heisman trophy for his defensive performance, and he happened to be a defensive back. For that reason, Charles Woodson is one of the best defensive backs in college football history.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, Woodson played on both sides of the ball. He ran about 10 plays per game on offense while shutting down receivers on defense. In three college seasons, Woodson had 16 interceptions.
To cap off his 1997 Heisman season, Woodson’s Michigan Wolverines won the NCAA Football Championship with a Rose Bowl victory over Washington State. Woodson was the fourth overall pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. He went on to have a Hall of Fame professional career.
Another great college defensive back was Rod Woodson (no relation to Charles). Like Charles, Rod played both offense and defense at a Big Ten school – Charles at Michigan and Rod at Purdue. Even crazier, they eventually played together with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders!
Rod Woodson was one of the most productive defensive backs in college football history. In four seasons at Purdue, he racked up 455 tackles, four fumbles forced (seven recovered), 11 interceptions, and 29 passes broken up.
In his final game at Purdue, Woodson started on offense, defense, and special teams. In this win over Indiana, Woodson filled up the box score with 93 rushing yards, 67 receiving yards, 10 tackles, one pass breakup, one forced fumble, and 76 return yards.
And as you may have guessed, Rod Woodson is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
Defensive backs must be quick thinkers, fast movers, and versatile athletes. Whether it’s fear of throwing an interception or the terror of getting sacked, a great DB can force a quarterback to make bad plays.