We’re pretty sure you will have heard of American Football. Maybe you already know the ball is egg shaped and that actually, there’s far more throwing and catching of the ball than its name would suggest!
Known simply in the USA as ‘football’, ‘America’s Game’ is represented at the professional level by the sporting powerhouse known as the National Football League (NFL). With a short, explosive regular season that runs from September to January and only 17 games per team, ‘football’ season captivates a nation and has in recent years expanded successfully into different countries, with teams playing annual games in the likes of Mexico City, Munich and of course, London.
NFL games have been taking place consistently in London since 2007, with venues like Wembley, Twickenham and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium regularly hosting matches and giving UK fans the full flavour of the NFL extravaganza.
However, whilst iconic names like Montana, Marino and Madden may have transcended the sport and internationally staged games have increased global awareness and popularity, for the uninitiated amongst us, understanding the sport of American Football can be quite tricky.
So, if you’re an NFL rookie, want to grasp the basics and don’t know your sacks and snaps from drives and downs, here’s our ultimate guide to understanding American Football. As you’re reading this, you may find terminology you don’t understand, so head to our glossary of key NFL terms to find out more. You will thank us when the NFL London Series kicks off in October…
What is the aim of the game?
The purpose of the game is to carry the ball into the opposition’s end zone. This can be achieved through throwing the ball successfully to a team-mate, or by running with the ball until the ball carrier is tackled to the floor. Conversely, when the opposition has the ball, tackling opponents to prevent them reaching your end zone is the purpose.
How big is the field?
The field is 100 yards long and 53 yards wide with white markings called yard markers, which help keep track of the ball. However, probably the most important part of the field is the endzone; an additional 10 yards at each end of the field where each team try and score a touchdown.
How Does The Game Clock Work?
Each game consists of four 15-minute quarters, with a 12-minute break for halftime. In addition, there are two-minute breaks at the end of the first and third quarters, this is so teams can change ends of the field after every 15 minutes of play.
The clock will stop due to the following reasons: an incomplete pass, when a player goes out of bounds, or when there’s a penalty (which we will discuss later in this guide).
If, at the end of the game, there is a tie, sudden death takes place – where the first team to score wins. However, with new rules enforced for the 2021-22 season, once the playoff stage has been reached, both teams will have the opportunity for possession of the ball regardless of whether the opponent scores.
With stoppages such as time outs and TV commercial, the average NFL game last approximately three hours.
Time Out – the opportunities each team have, to temporarily stop the game. Each team can have three time-outs per half. If the game goes into overtime both teams are awarded two time outs during the 15 minute sudden death period.
What Are Downs?
This is the most fundamental part of the game. The offence needs to move the ball forward 10 yards and they have four chances to do this. The yard markers keep track of this. If the offence progresses these 10 yards within four goes, they then earn another first down. If they fail to achieve these 10 yards within four downs, possession is given to the opposing team. Often the ball is kicked on the fourth down if the offence does not achieve 10 yards.
What Are Plays?
These are movements often decided by the head coach or quarterback and involve 11 players to move the ball downfield. The term is usually referred to attacking teams, however defending teams also use set plays to stop the ball and their opponents moving forward towards the end zone.
The offensive team has 40 seconds to begin this play or kick a field goal otherwise they will be penalised.
How does scoring work?
Touchdown = 6 points
Extra point and the two-point conversion = 1 or 2 points
Field goal = 3 points
Safety = 2 points
Players and Positions
An American football team is made up of 45 players in total, however there are only 11 players from each side, on the field at any one time.
This 45-man team is then broken down into three specialised units:
- The Offence – 11 attacking players that are tasked with scoring points
- The Defence – 11 defensive players whose aim is to stop the opposition scoring
- Special Teams –11 players who are neither offensive nor defensive but are involved in kicking plays
Whichever team has possession of the ball is the offence. While only the quarterback, wide receivers, tight ends, and the running backs tend to be the significant ball handlers, it is the quarterback who is the leader of the team and the playmaker. The quarter back not only throws the ball, but he delivers the play calls to his offence.
- Offensive Linemen (The O Line) – There are five positions on the offensive line; Left Tackle, Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, and Right Tackle. These are easy to remember because they are always in the middle of the field, and their positions go in order left to right.
- Tackles – This player blocks defensive players who are trying to get past to tackle an offensive player. Famous examples of left tackles are Anthony Munoz and Joe Thomas.
- Guards – While they also will block defensive players from tackling offensive players, they are more mobile than the rest of the offensive line. Guards will often be asked to run and block, or “pull,” to the sides to help create space in the field. Famous guards include Gene Upshaw, Mike Munchak, and Larry Allen.
- Center – Responsible for hiking the football to the QB. Hiking is when the ball is placed on the ground and then brought between the center’s legs into the hands of the QB so they can execute the play. They can hand the ball directly to the QB, or if the QB is standing far away, they can toss it back from beneath their legs to the QB. Famous centers include Jim Otto, Dwight Stephenson, and Mike Webster.
- The Quarterback (QB) – regarded as the most important position in American Football, their job is to lead the offence, relay the plays to the other players, throw the ball, or hand the ball off to another player. Every single play, minus a very few trick plays, will begin with the ball in the quarterback’s hand. The majority of a QB’s contributions will come from throwing passes to other players. Some famous examples of quarterbacks are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, and Joe Montana.
- Wide Receivers (WR)- There are two main types of wide receivers in the NFL: the wideout and the slot receiver. Both of their main purposes are to catch balls thrown to them. Some famous examples of wide receivers are Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr, and Terrell Owens.
- The Running Back (RB) – A running back contributes mostly by having the ball handed to him by the QB, and then running as far down the field as he can before he gets tackled. He can also catch the ball like a WR, but that is his second priority despite it still being very important for him to do. You can find running backs lined up behind the QB on most football plays. Legendary NFL running backs include Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and LaDainian Tomlinson.
- The Fullback (FB) – Once the most revered position in American Football, fullbacks nowadays are more often large players who block for the running back. They line up between the QB and RB and use their running head start to clear a running path for the RB behind them.
- Tight Ends (TE) – Tight ends are smaller than offensive lineman but bigger than other traditional football players. They have two jobs in a game: catching passes from a QB and blocking. Tight ends are typically found lining up near the ends of the main five-man offensive line. When a play happens, they can block incoming defenders, or they can move forward into the open field to attempt to catch a pass. Famous examples of tight ends are Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Tony Gonzalez, and Jason Witten.
The job of the defence is to stop the offence. The 11 men on the defensive team all work together to keep the offence from advancing toward the defence’s end zone.
- Defensive Linemen (The D Line) – Consisting of Defensive Ends (DE’s) and Defensive Tackles (DT’s). They line up directly across from the offensive line and typically, but not exclusively, consist of three or four men. Their job is to try to tackle the QB before he throws the ball, known as a “sack”, or to tackle the RB before he gets past them.
- Defensive Ends – located on the end of the defensive line. They are often found to be ‘pass rushers’, which means their main job is to rush the QB and sack him or disrupt him enough to make a bad throw. Famous DE’s include Reggie White, Deacon Jones, and JJ Watt.
- Defensive Tackle – located in the middle of the D Line, there are typically one or two defensive tackles. DT’s are usually meant to disrupt the lanes a RB may run through and force O-Lines to double-team them so defensive ends can get to the QB. They don’t record many tackles or sacks but are instrumental in a defensive play. Famous examples of DT’s include John Randle, Warren Sapp, ‘Mean’ Joe Greene and ‘The Fridge’ William Perry.
- Linebackers (LB) – located directly back behind the defensive line, there are typically three or four linebackers on the field, usually three if there are four defensive linemen, and four if there are three defensive linemen. There are three types of linebackers the two outside linebackers, strong and weak side, and the middle linebackers. Famous linebackers include Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs.
- Cornerbacks (CB) – the direct defensive answer to a wide receiver. They line up directly in front of a WR and their job is to guard them as best they can to prevent a WR from catching a pass. Corners are one of the most important positions in football. They’re typically the fastest position on the defence. There can be anywhere from two to four corners on the field at any time, but two is typical. Famous examples of a CB are Deon Sanders, Richard Sherman, Charles Woodson, and Champ Bailey.
- Safeties (FS or SS) – There are two types of safeties: a free safety (FS) and a strong safety (SS). Safeties are located the farthest back from the offensive side of the ball. They are the last line of defence and whilst they line up together, have very different roles:
- Free Safety – the true last line of defence. He is primarily considered a pass defensive position, sitting back, and scanning the field for where the ball will go and then reacting. He is typically considered a playmaker, intercepting balls thrown his way and stopping plays deep down the field. He is free to roam the field and make plays, thus free safety.
- Strong Safety – like a linebacker but with more speed. He will often line up on the left side, or the strong side of the field and come up to help with stopping running backs. He is also needed to sit back in coverage of the field, but primarily will be like a linebacker with more coverage responsibilities. He is a strong tackler and lines up on the strong side, thus strong safety.
This often overlooked third unit of the team is made up of players who man the kick coverage, punt coverage, field goal and punt teams. Each team has a kicker and punter to kick the ball in certain situations. They spend the least amount of time on the field but can often have a major impact on the result of a game.
- Kickers – These are the players responsible for kick-offs, field goals, and extra points. They kick the football off the ground to earn more points for their team. Although this player might not be involved in much of the game, he can make or break the result of a game. Noteworthy kickers include Adam Vinatieri, George Blanda, and Justin Tucker.
- Holders – the players that receive the ball and hold it on the ground for kickers to kick. If they fumble with the ball, it could result in a missed field goal or the kicker missing the ball altogether.
- Punters – responsible for dropping the ball and kicking it very far to the other end of the field. This happens when the offensive team wishes to switch possession and give it to the other team instead of trying to gain yardage on fourth down. The punter has an extra blocker behind the line of scrimmage with them, known as a punt protector (PP). Illustrious punters include Shane Lechler, Ray Guy, and Johnny Hekker.
- Returners – the players who catch the ball after a punt or kick-off. After catching the ball, they can either attempt to run down the field to put their team in a better position, or signal for a fair catch. A fair catch means the kicking team cannot tackle the returner and the receiving team’s offence starts at the location where the ball was caught. Famous returners include Gail Sayers, Devin Hester, and Joshua Cribbs.
- Gunners – a player who “guns” down the field to try to tackle the opposing returner. They are usually positioned on the side-lines and are especially fast runners. Their main opposition on special teams are the jammers.
- Jammers – tasked with blocking the gunners at the line of scrimmage to prevent them from getting to the punt returner.
- Blockers – a critical part of the special teams unit. Blockers on the receiving team help protect the returner from the opposing special teams unit, who attempt to tackle the returner after they catch the ball. Blockers on the kicking team prevent opposing players from reaching the kicker or punter to disrupt the kick. Jammers function as blockers against the gunners on the outside of the field.
- Snappers – the player who “snaps” the ball to the holder during extra points or field goal kicks. He must have extreme accuracy and precision, as kickers and punters stand farther away from the offensive lines than a quarterback would.
Why Did The Whistle Blow? Penalties Explained
- False Start – Every member of the offence must come to a full stop before the ball is snapped. A false start occurs when a member of the offensive unit moves in the moment prior to the snapping of the ball to begin a play. When this happens, the offence moves backward five yards as a penalty.
- Holding – A holding penalty is awarded when an offensive player illegally grabs a defender to stop them chasing the ball carrier. A 10-yard penalty is assessed against the offence.
- Offensive Pass Interference (OPI) – OPI is called when an offensive player gains an advantage by pushing off, or blocking, a defender when the ball is in the air in a passing play. A 15-yard penalty and a loss of down is assessed against the offence. A loss of down means that, unlike with other infractions where a yardage penalty is assessed but the down remains the same on the next play (i.e., ‘replay 2nd down’), OPI carries the weight of lost yardage and one fewer opportunity to gain it back (i.e., 2nd down becomes 3rd down).
- Encroachment/Offside – This occurs when a defensive player lines up in the ‘neutral zone’ when the ball is snapped by the offence. A five-yard penalty is awarded against the defensive unit.
- Holding – A holding penalty is awarded when a defensive player illegally grabs an opposing player to stop them catching the ball (prior to the ball being thrown) or to stop a player from advancing to block further downfield. A 5-yard penalty is awarded against the defence, and the offence is awarded a new set of downs.
- Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) – DPI is called when a defensive player gains an advantage by pushing or blocking an offensive player when the ball is in the air in a passing play. The ball is moved to the spot where the foul was committed (thus, DPI is sometimes referred to as a ‘spot foul’) and the offence is awarded a new set of downs.
What are the key terms used in the nfl?
- Conferences – The National Football League (NFL) is split into two 16-team conferences, called the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Both conferences are made up of four divisions of four teams, based mainly on geography. The conference systems were introduced when the American Football League (AFL) and National Football League (NFL) merged in 1966.
- Divisions – The two conferences, the AFC and NFC, are split into four divisions of four teams based on geography. Each conference has an East, West, North and South division. Each division plays the other teams in their division twice (home and away) making up six games of the 17-game schedule.
- Drive – A series of plays by the offence to move the ball towards the opposition’s end zone.
- Downs – A single play between the offence and the defence (or special teams and the defence). A team must gain 10 yards in a maximum of four downs to keep possession of the ball. Once the 10 yards is gained, a team earns a further four downs to gain the next 10 yards, and so on.
- End zone – The scoring zone for an offence to either throw or run the ball into to score a touchdown. The defence is tasked with defending the end zone.
- Franchise – The NFL is made up of 32 franchises, or teams. Franchises are usually named after the location in which they are based with a mascot or moniker attached (e.g., Jacksonville Jaguars). Franchises occasionally move from city to city to capitalise on bigger commercial markets.
- Fumble – Occurs when a player who has the ball in their possession loses control of the ball without being down by contact. The loose ball can then be picked up by either side to gain possession.
- Gridiron – A jargon name for the field on which the game is played.
- Interception – Occurs when a member of the defence catches a pass from the opposing Quarterback, gaining possession of the football for their team.
- Line of scrimmage – The line where every offensive play begins.
- Playoffs – The playoffs are the end-of-season tournament which culminates in the Super Bowl. Seven teams from each conference earn a playoff berth each season. The four division winners are awarded seeds 1-4 and three wildcard teams – the teams with the next-best records in the conference – earn seeds 5-7.
- Pick-six – The phrase used when a defensive player intercepts the opposing quarterback and takes the ball to the end zone for a touchdown.
- Possession – The name for whichever team has the ball at that point in the game. It can also refer to having physical control of the football during a play.
- Punt – Traditionally used on fourth down, the punt is where the ball is dropped and kicked before touching the ground. It tends to be used to move the ball further up field when the team has failed to make 10 yards in three plays.
- Red zone – The area between the 20-yard line and the end zone. It is often noted how high a team’s red-zone percentage is: how many times they score from inside the 20-yard line.
- Sack – Is when a defensive player tackles the quarterback behind his own line of scrimmage. Defensive linemen and linebackers traditionally pick up the most sacks.
- Safety – A safety occurs when the offence commits a foul in their own end zone, fumbles the ball out of their end zone, or are tackled in their own end zone. When this happens, the opponent is rewarded 2 points.
- Snap – The moment an offensive play begins. The centre snaps the ball through his legs to the quarterback (or occasionally another player) to signal the start of the play.
- Super Bowl – The grand finale of the NFL season. The game pits the NFC Champion against the AFC Champion.
- Trick Play – Also known as a gadget play, gimmick play or trickeration, this is a play that uses deception and unorthodox tactics to fool the opposing team.
- Touchdown – A touchdown is scored when the ball is on, above, or behind the plane of the opponents’ goal line and is in possession of a runner or catcher who has advanced from the field of play into the end zone.
- Turnover – When the ball is accidently lost from the offensive and the defence gain control.
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