With so many rules, positions, stoppages, competition format intricacies and tonnes of jargon, NFL athletes probably aren’t the most intimidating thing about American football for first-time viewers.
But to prove it doesn’t actually take too long to understand and enjoy the USA’s most popular sport, here’s our guide to the National Football League (NFL). It’s complete with a glossary and an easy-to-read overview of all the American football rules you need to know.
The basics of American football
The aim of the game is to move the ball downfield, towards, and hopefully into the opposing team’s end zone.
To do so, a team has four chances (‘downs’) to make a total of 10 yards. Gain those ten yards and you get another set of four downs. If a team fails to make 10 yards in four downs, the ball goes to the opposition. Teams can instead opt to surrender possession (typically on fourth down) by kicking (or ‘punting’) the ball away.
Yards are gained by either running with the ball in hand or throwing the ball for a teammate to catch. The quarterback usually throws the ball while the running backs normally run with it.
A team is allowed to have eleven players on the field at a given time. When one side is on offense, the other side is on defense. Players typically specialize, and tend only play either offense or defense.
The game takes place on a 100-yard field. The game clock is 60 minutes, split into four 15-minute quarters. Each team has three time-outs available per half. Additionally, the clock is stopped at each incomplete pass, any time a team scores, and whenever there is a change of possession.
Teams score six points for a touchdown – getting the ball into the opposition’s end zone – with the chance to score an additional one or two points depending on whether the team opts for a kick through the posts or a play from the two-yard line.
Teams can also score three points if they kick a field goal – kicking between the posts – or two points for a safety if a team is stopped inside their own end zone (more on this later).
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How the NFL season works
The NFL season has been tweaked for 2021, with each of the 32 teams now playing 17 regular-season games instead of the previous 16. Teams will now play three pre-season games instead of four, with the regular season starting in the second week of September.
Of the 32 teams, 14 will reach the postseason playoffs. Seven will be from the AFC (American Football Conference) and seven from the NFC (National Football Conference). Each conference is split into four divisions, with the division winners in each conference (North, East, South and West) joining the three next-best teams in the playoffs.
The top team in each conference automatically qualifies for the Divisional round, while the remaining 12 feature in the Wild Card round before that. That, in turn, will leave eight teams, then becoming four and eventually two battling it out in the Super Bowl.
How many players make up American football rosters?
Each NFL team consists of three separate units: offense, defense and special teams.
The offense, consisting of a quarterback, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line, is tasked with scoring the majority of the points for a team. When the offense is on the field, that team is in control of the ball.
The defensive unit, consisting of a defensive line, linebackers and secondary (cornerbacks and safeties), is tasked with defending their end zone from the opposing offense. They can also take back possession by creating a turnover, or by forcing the opposing team to punt.
The special teams unit 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.
- Quarterback (QB): The QB is the signal caller of the offense and, by far, most important player on the field. The QB tells everyone on the offense the play prior to the snap of the ball. The play then begins when the center (C) snaps the ball to the QB, who can either hand the ball to a RB (or sometimes a WR or TE), throw the ball to a WR/RB/TE (collectively termed ‘skill position players’), or run with the ball himself.
- Running back (RB): RBs are the focal point of an offense’s running game. They receive the ball from the QB either via hand-off or via a backward (lateral) pass. RBs are also useful in the passing game. They either block on-rushing defenders to protect the QB, or run a passing route to be in a position to catch the ball from the QB.
- Wide receiver (WR): WRs are predominantly used in the passing game, catching passes from the QB. WRs begin the play on the outside of the offensive formation and use their speed, precision route running and catching abilities to impact the game. WRs also provide a useful boost in the running game as blockers.
- Tight end (TE): TEs are a hybrid of OL and WR, although in recent years the trend has been for TEs to be used as difference-makers in the passing game. TEs line up on the end of the offensive line and must be strong blockers in the run game and explosive in the passing game. A good TE is a matchup nightmare for the defense.
- Offensive line (OL): The OL is arguably the most important unit on the field. Consisting of two tackles (OT), two guards (OG) and a center (C), it is the job of the OL to protect the QB in the passing game and clear a path for RBs in the running game.
- Defensive tackle/nose tackle (DT/NT): DTs form the interior of the defensive line. Most teams either use an NT if they run a 3-4 defense (three players on the defensive line and four linebackers) or two DTs in a 4-3 defense (vice versa). Their main duty is to stop the interior-run game of the opposing offense and ‘rushing’ the QB in the passing game.
- Defensive end (3-4 DE): A 3-4 defensive end is similar to a DT in a 4-3 defense, with the main duty being to stop the opposition’s interior run game.
- Edge rusher (4-3 DE/3-4 OLB): Edge rushers are vital for any defensive unit. They are the players who rush the opposing QB, trying to either sack him or force him into a mistake. Edge rushers must also contain the outside run game of the opposition, ensuring opposing RBs don’t get to the edge of the defense.
- Inside linebacker (ILB): ILBs are the main run defenders in a defense. It is their duty to tackle the RBs as they come through the line of scrimmage. In recent years, however, there has been a trend of ILBs becoming hugely important in the pass defense as they primarily cover the opposing team’s TE.
- Cornerback (CB): CBs defend the passing game and are either tasked with covering an opposing WR (man coverage) or a zone of the field (zone coverage).
- Safety (S): A strong safety (SS) usually plays near the line of scrimmage, covering the opposing TE in the passing game and making an impact in the run game. A free safety (FS), like a CB, is a playmaker in the passing game either in man or zone coverage.
What actually happens in a game of American football?
An offense is in control of the ball when they are on the field, lining up against the opposition’s defensive unit.
It is the offense’s job to move the ball down the field to reach the end zone. The offense has four downs to move the ball 10 yards. If they are successful, the offense is awarded a further four downs to move the next 10 yards.
A defense will try to stop the offense from making those 10 yards. If successful, they “turn over” the ball and their team’s offense takes possession. The defense can also halt an offense by intercepting the ball in the passing game or forcing a fumble and ‘recovering’ the ball.
A play begins when the offensive centre snaps the ball through his legs to the quarterback.
Scoring in American football
Six points are awarded to a team for a touchdown. A touchdown can be scored by the offense, defense or special teams.
After a touchdown is scored, the scoring team has the opportunity to kick an extra point or run another offensive play from the two-yard line with the chance to earn two points.
A field goal is worth three points. This occurs when a team has manages to move the ball into the range of their kicker, but fails to score a touchdown. Rather than attempting a play on fourth down that might turn the ball over to the opposition, they can have their kicker attempt to kick the ball through the upright goal posts in the opponents’ end zone.
A defense can score points by intercepting a pass or recovering a fumbled ball and retuning it to the opponents’ end zone without stepping out of bounds or getting tackled. When this happens, a team is awarded a touchdown (six points). A defense can also score points by sacking or tackling an opposing player who possesses the ball in his own end zone. This is known as a “safety”, and is worth two points.
American football rules explained
- False Start: Every member of the offense 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 offense 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 offense.
- 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 offense. 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 offense. 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 defense, and the offense 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 offense is awarded a new set of downs.
- 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 offense to move the ball towards the opposition’s end zone.
- Downs: A single play between the offense and the defense (or special teams and the defense). A team must gain 10 yards in a maximum of four downs to ‘move the chains’. 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 offense to either throw or run the ball into to score a touchdown. The defense is tasked with defending the end zone.
- Franchise: The NFL is made up of 32 franchises, or teams, split into two 16-team conferences. Franchises are usually named after the location in which they are based with a mascot or moniker attached (e.g. Philadelphia Eagles). 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 defense 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 play-offs 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 upfield 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. NFL Red Zone is also a Sunday afternoon/evening live TV show which highlights all the major plays from the evening.
- 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.
- Scoop-and-Score: Usually referring to a defensive play, this is when a player picks up the ball on the ground and scores a touchdown.
- 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.
- Turnover: This is when one of the teams gives possession of the ball to the other, turning the ball over.
- YAC: YAC, or yards after catch, is how far the offensive player takes the ball after catching it.