AFL Defenders: A Guide to the Back-Line and Types of Defence

I once had a coach tell me defence wins championships. A solid defence is the cornerstone to any great footy team, and while it may be unglamorous in AFL, it’s arguable the most important feature. So when a friend asked me for some details about the AFL back-line I thought I may as well put a whole guide together on the subject.

In this guide to defenders I’ve called on my past experience backed up with a lot of research (check out the references at the end) to give you a complete guide to defenders, covering:

  • Back-line positions: What they are and what they must do
  • Types of defenders: Small, tall, and attacking
  • Rules and recent rule changes for defenders: Kick ins, rebound 50, and changes
  • Defensive tactics – Loose man and zone tactics
Digram of AFL defenders on the field
Defenders are nearest the Opposition’s Goal

As the AFL game has evolved, defence has shaped the modern game like no other element. Defenders in days past would have their direct opponent and their only task was to beat that man. Now it’s all about team defences and something that not defenders, but all players across the ground, are responsible for. Despite all this all round team defence, there is still a back-line with a variety of roles and positions, structures, tactics and terms which I’ll be covering in this article – to give you an idea of the intricacies of being a defender in Aussie football.

An AFL defender is a player who is responsible for making it difficult for the opposing team’s forward line to score goals. Defenders, or the ‘back line’, refer to a number of different positions, including the full backs and the half backs.

Defenders play a number of back-line positions. On the full-back line, defenders play Full Back or one of the two Back Pockets. On the half-back line, defenders play Centre Half Back or one of the two Half Back Flankers.

Different roles for defenders are small, tall, and rebounding. Small defenders are good at moving around quickly; tall defenders should be good at marking; and rebounders are good at taking the ball and getting it back in to play in their direction.

I’ve gone in to more details on the different positions, types, and roles below, including some of the rule changes that have mixed up the game since I used to play.

Back-line Positions

The defensive lines in footy, called the back-line, consist of 6 positions. These are broken into two rows of 3:

  • Full-back Line – This is the line of positions closest to the goal. Responsible for defending the goal and locking down on important key opposition forwards. Included are Full Back (FB) in the middle with two Back Pockets (PB) either side.
  • Half-back Line – This is the line furthest from the goal and consists of the Centre Half Back (CHB) and two Half Back Flankers (HBF).

The Full Back primarily plays on the opponent’s Full Forward. I’ve seen the game change over the years but this is one element of footy that still remains – the classic battle between a good Full Back and a Full Forward.

The Centre Half Back is responsible to play on the opposing Centre Half Forward, and being a marking presence across the defensive 50.

The Half Back Flankers are more versatile – they’re usually smarter players with speed and good kicking skills. Half Back Flankers are responsible for giving the defence to an opponent’s attacking element. They can also be a defender assigned to play on a particular opponent’s forward or midfielder resting forward.

Types of Defenders

Depending on the players skill set, athletic ability, and physical attributes, there are a number of different roles (or ‘types’) defenders can play.

  • Small Defender – A shorter player with good speed and centre of gravity.
  • Key / Tall Defender – Big and strong, plays on the bigger forwards.
  • Rebounding / Attacking Defender – Small, quick, creative and with good skills by hand and foot.

Small defenders have become increasingly important in the modern game as their speed is able to get back to protect the goal when their team is being counter attacked. The main role of the small defender is to play on the opponent’s small forward.

Key (or Tall) Defenders are the backbone of the defence. In the modern game, it’s important for the key defender to read opposition attacks and present an intercept marking presence. While I don’t typically see them as an attacking outlet, the best defenders are ones who can not only keep their opposition forward quiet, but to also intercept attacks and then quickly rebound out of their defence with a counter attack of their own.

Rebounding / Attacking Defenders are mainly responsible for providing a dashing counter attack from the defensive end. They should also be able to get back and support their other defenders.

What is a Kick In

In AFL, a kick in is when the attacking team misses a shot for goal and the defending team brings the ball back into play from the 5 metre goal square at the face of the goal. The attacking team scores a behind worth 1 point while the defending team takes possession of the ball.

The manner and process of this occurrence has changed over the years and I reckon it’ll change again soon (though I’m not sure how yet).

What is a Rebound 50

A rebound 50 is when the defensive team clears the ball successfully from the defensive line. Rebound 50s in relation to the opposition’s inside 50 count is a good indicator of how a defence is holding up against opposition attacks.

Recent Rule Changes for Defenders

I also took a look at some of the recent rule changes. I used to play years ago when I was much younger, interesting to see how the game’s changed since then.

Deliberate Rule

The deliberate rule, referring to the deliberate out of bounds rule, awards a free kick against any player who intentionally Kicks, Handballs or forces the football over the Boundary Line without the football being touched by another Player. This is to prevent players slowing down the pace of the game by deliberately moving the ball over the boundary line.

When I was starting in high school (early 2000’s!) the defenders would often use the boundary line as a sanctuary in repelling attacks. You would have had to be an insanely blatant or horribly unlucky to be called by an umpire for deliberately putting the ball out of bounds.

The Deliberate Rule has always existed, but the change comes from 20 years of a stricter policing of the deliberate rule. Gone are the days when a defender would kick straight for the boundary line. Now a player must be making a reasonable attempt to keep the ball in play, and any kick going towards the line must also be in the direction of a team mate. This stricter interpretation of the rule is try and speed the game up. Restricting teams from going wide limits the number of boundary throw ins.

Chopping of the Arms

In AFL, chopping of the arms means to hit or pull on an opponent’s arms in an attempt to prevent them from marking the ball. Chopping the arms has been restricted by the AFL.

For years, forwards complained about the treatment being dished on them by defenders. Defenders, particularly full backs, would stop at nothing to stop their opposition Full Forward. There are a number of famous stories, such as players stepping on heels and grabbing in inappropriate places; these of course were all illegal, but before the days of 100 cameras, they would often go unseen. One way, which was actually legal, was to slap or punch the attack players forearms in a marking contest. This has now been ruled out, a restriction that has made life a lot harder for defenders.

Kick-in Rules

A kick-in is when the defensive team brings the field of play, from the 5 metre goal square, after the attacking team has scored a behind. While this has always been the case, in an attempt to speed the game up, the AFL have brought in certain rules surrounding this aspect of the game.

When I was playing, a defender could not kick the ball back in until after the goal umpire had signalled the score with both his hands and waving the flags. This changed so that the player being allowed to kick the ball in before the umpire waved the flag, as long as the umpire had signalled with his hands. Up until a year ago, this changed again, now the player may bring the ball in immediately and does not have to wait for any signal from the goal umpire.

Another subtle change is the use of the 5 metre square at the face of the goal. In the past, a player could only kick the ball in from inside the square. If he wanted to play on and run out of the square with the ball, he would have to kick it to himself first. Since the AFL changed the rule, they have also allowed for players to freely run out of the square without having to kick it to themselves. The square is now almost obsolete.

Defensive Tactics

Loose Man

The loose man in defence is when a defending player does not have a direct opponent and is available to assist other defenders as necessary. The defender is loose as he does not have someone he is attached to.

When the attacking team pushes one of their forwards further up the ground, or when the defensive team tries to close down space and drops an attacker or midfielder in defence, this creates an extra defender.

This extra player, or ‘loose man’, can be quite a stumbling block for attacking teams. The loose man positions himself to try and intercept the ball, or double team a dangerous forward. The loose man is usually a tall defender with good agility who is able to read the game.


Zone defence is where a team will establish a zone of defence to hamper the efforts of the opposing team. This can include clustering the defending players around opponents to reduce the available space, or by forming a grid to efficiently move the ball down the field.

I reckon zones have change the game more than any other initiative. During the mid-200’s, coaches started centering their defence around team philosophies rather than just a part of the ground. Teams often set up walls across parts of the ground, each player was drilled and coached to stand in a particular position to stifle the attacking team.

One such ‘zone’ is a cluster where teams crush opponents – circling them and not given them space.

Another example is best described as a grid, with lines of 3 or 4 moving with the ball as it goes from side to side. These zones have made it increasingly hard to score, and often create rugby like mauls.

Bottom Line

While Midfielders, Defenders, and Attackers can be separated into teams within teams, defence much more than the others have become increasingly a responsibility from everyone across the ground. Coaches now position players like chess pieces, trying to manipulate situations to get not only the best match-ups for their teams, but to also stop the opposition from scoring.

While defence is very much a team responsibility, there are also players who specialise and play in the defensive part of the ground. These defenders come in all shapes – from small determined players, to big and strong marking players, to fast skillful types who can turn defence into attack in a blink of an eye.

These defenders have to deal with not only keeping their opposition forwards in check but also having to deal with new rules, prohibiting what were once un-sporting and sometimes violent tactics. These include hitting a player’s arm in a contest, or deliberately putting the ball out of play to give their fellow defenders a rest. While some of these have caused controversy and arguments ,there is one thing that can’t be argued and that is the importance of defence in building and sustaining a consistent winning team.


As I was primarily a forward player when I played footy, I had to do a bit of research to put together this guide on defence. The game’s also changed a fair amount since I played. If you’re interested where I got my info from, I’ve included the links here:

Cass used to play on the forward line. He was always the one the defenders were trying to stop scoring.


Cass was born with a football in his arms. From the moment he could walk he's loved playing sport, watching sport, and being a fan of any game he can play. Cass helped start Anybody's Fan to help fans enjoy their sport. He works to provide easy to read information and guides that help fans understand different strategies and terms of the game, and why coaches and players do what they do.

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