What Is a Secondary in Football? A Complete Overview

A football safety starts running toward the line.

There are always 22 football players on the field at once and they all have their own specialized roles. There are players that play close to the ball and others that play further away. The players who play further away are usually referred to as the ‘secondary’.

So, what is the secondary in football?

The secondary consists of safeties and cornerbacks, who are responsible for shutting down the passing game and preventing big plays. The secondary will either utilize man-to-man or zone coverage on each play.

While that’s a general overview of what the secondary is, we’ll dive into all the intricacies of the secondary throughout the rest of this article. So, stick around!

What Is a Secondary in Football?

A secondary in football consists of the defenders responsible for defending against deep passes. In some cases, they defend short passes as well and come up to support the run defense.

Let’s review the entire field to better understand why it is called the secondary.

The players closest to the line of scrimmage and football are the defensive lineman and linebackers. Think of these players as the first line of defense. They mostly defend against the run because of their proximity to the ball.

The players behind them, also known as the defensive backfield, make up the secondary. Here is another example. The defensive backfield is further away from the ball when we look from the offensive perspective. They are the second line behind the defensive lineman and linebackers.

What Positions Play in the Secondary in Football?

Safeties and cornerbacks make up the majority of positions in the secondary. Obviously, any player could play in the secondary. But safeties and cornerbacks have certain physical qualities that make them a perfect fit to play in the secondary.

Safeties play in the deep middle of the field. Think of them as the centerfield in baseball. Cornerbacks play deep, too. But cornerbacks play on the edges of the field closer to the sideline, or wider than the safeties.

How Do You Play in the Secondary in Football?

You play the secondary position in football with athleticism, aggression, and intelligence.

The cardinal rule for defensive backs is to defend the pass first, and run second. More importantly, a defensive back should never get beat deep by a wide receiver.

For example, a cornerback is responsible for defending one deep third of the field in cover 3. Any wide receiver running a route in this deep third needs to be covered or the defense risks giving up a big play or touchdown.

This is a common mistake at the lower levels of play when a secondary player ‘bites’ on a play in front of them and gives up a deep play over the top.

Defensive backs need to be able to move in all directions. Backpedaling, turning the hips, and sprinting are important movements in order to play the position.

Moving laterally and side-to-side are important because defenders need to be able to shuffle, track ball carriers, and make successful tackles.

Taking proper angles requires physical practice and intelligence. Secondary players need to be able to take the appropriate angle to cut off a ball carrier and force them to cut back to the middle of the field in order to contain players and prevent big plays.

What Is the Role of the Secondary in Football?

A safety intercepts the ball in the end zone.

As we discussed earlier, the biggest role of the secondary is to keep the offense from completing deep passes behind the defense.

When necessary, they need to be able to read, react, and go up the field to make a tackle on a ball carrier. For example, a backpedaling defensive back will transition to a sprint downfield at the appropriate angle once they see the offense is running the ball rather than passing it.

There are special situations where cornerbacks blitz to create extra pressure on a quarterback. The drawback is giving up an extra player in coverage.

Depending on the down and distance, secondary players may play very close to the line of scrimmage. They can line up closer to the line of scrimmage in order to add more support against run plays (i.e. 3rd and 1 yard to go).

They will line up deeper in the secondary when the offense is in a longer down and distance situation (i.e. 3rd and 15 yards to go).

The defensive play called affects the secondary’s responsibility, too. In Cover 0, there are no players defending deep. They are all manned up or blitzing the offense. In Cover 1, there is only one deep defender and the rest of the players are manned up or blitzing the offense.

How Many Players Are in the Secondary?

The number of players in the secondary depends on the coverage called. The most common defensive coverages called are cover 2 and cover 3. In cover 2, there are two deep safeties and the rest of the defensive players (usually two cornerbacks and linebackers) defend short.

In cover 3, one safety and two cornerbacks each defend one deep third of the field.

There are other variations of defensive coverage. Nickel packages, for example, use five defensive backs. These packages are called in late down, long-yardage situations when the offense is more likely to pass to make the first down.

It is clear to see that the number of secondary players depends on a defensive team’s identity as well as the down and distance of each play.

What Is a Defensive Back?

A defensive back makes a tackle.

A defensive back is a secondary player whose main specialty is pass defense against wide receivers. They are fast, agile, explosive, intelligent, and expected to defend the best offensive players on the field.

Cornerbacks need to be physical enough to come up field and tackle ball carriers. However, this is typically not their main strength, and teams will compromise this skill for their ability to defend the pass.

They may not be as big or physical as safeties, but there are times when they are physical. This creates an advantage for the defense when attacking the offense.

What Is a Safety?

A safety is a secondary player responsible for defending the pass first and run second. But, they are much more physical than a cornerback and are expected to defend runs much more frequently.

Some safeties are even known for being run-stopping safeties. One popular player in recent history was Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was known for his physicality and ability to stop the run.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, formerly from the University of Alabama, is also well known for his physicality and ability to defend the run.

And of course, these players were also great pass defenders but set themselves apart from other safeties by being able to defend both the pass and run.

In more recent times, hybrid positions such as outside linebackers have opened up new opportunities for players with a variety of skills and abilities to play different roles.

For example, an outside linebacker could be a safety who is very good at supporting the run and can move faster in space than an inside linebacker to defend the pass.

Finally, we can identify safeties and cornerbacks based on their numbers. Safeties will usually use the numbers 30-49 and cornerbacks the numbers 20-39. There is a bit of overlap here and sometimes players will use single digits and numbers in the teens.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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