NFL Guide

NFL Game Basics

American Football is played with an elongated ball (technically called a prolate spheroid) on a pitch which is approximately 120 yards long and just over 53 yards wide (160 feet). The main playing area is 100 yards long and marked off in 10 yard blocks and the remaining 10 yards at either side are called the end zones. In these end zones there is a set of posts which are used for field goals and extra points. The objective of the game is to get the ball into the opposing team’s end zone and in doing so scoring a touchdown which is the highest scoring play gaining 6 points; however there are other ways of scoring points. The most common ways are the kicking of an extra point after a touchdown which as its name would suggest gives 1 point, or kicking a field goal which involves kicking the ball over the cross bar and in between the posts which give 3 points. The other methods involve trying to get the ball into the end zone again after a touchdown which is called a two point conversion, and a safety which occurs when a team is tackled in its own end zone both of which give 2 points.

Each team has 11 players on the pitch at any one time but can change players at any time  the ball is not in play.

NFL games are played over four 15-minute quarters and if the scored are tied at the end on normal time an overtime (OT) session is played which again can last a maximum of 15 minutes. This OT session is sudden death meaning the 1st team to score wins. From the 2010 season new rules will apply to post season games which will give a team conceding a field goal one chance to score. In regular season games if the score is tied after 15 minutes of overtime the game ends in a tie, however in the post season play continues until a team scores there are no replays.  During the game the clock stops after certain plays and each team is allowed three time outs and one challenge each half which again stop the clock, meaning a game typically lasts around 3 hours excluding OT.

Before the game starts a coin is tossed to decide who will receive the ball first and when this is decided the game commences with one team kicking the ball to the other team who will be the offensive team first.

Once the Kick off is complete and assuming that the receiving team doesn’t manage to run the ball all the way back for a touchdown then the play will start. Here the team on offense tries to advance the ball down the field-by running with the ball or throwing it with the ultimate aim of  score points by crossing the goal line with the ball into the end zone. The team on offense can play the ball as many times in a drive to the end zone as it wants providing they advance the ball by 10 yards at least with every four attempts.
The other team (also with 11 players) is called the defense. It tries to stop the offensive team and make it give up possession of the ball. They can do this by stopping the offense from gaining 10 yards with 4 attempts or can intercept the ball by forcing an opposing player to drop the ball or by catching a ball thrown by the Quarter back.  They will also get the ball if the the offense scores.

What stops play

Several things can stop the game with these being the most common:

During the game the offensive team has 40 seconds from the end of a play to get their next play started this gives them enough time to line up and get into formation  otherwise they will be penalised. This is called a delay of game penalty and moves the offense back 5 yards.

The clock also stops at the end of an incomplete passing play, when a player goes out of bounds with the ball , or when  any other penalty is called. Obviously if there is an injury the game will be paused to allow the player to receive treatment or leave the pitch. After any stoppage the clock starts again when the ball is re-spotted by an official.

Each team has 3 separate units: the offense, those players who are on the field when the team has possession of the ball; the defense, players who line up to stop the other team’s offense; and special teams that only come in on kicking situations (punts, field goals, and kickoffs). Only 11 players are on the field from one team at any one time.

A game starts with the kickoff. The ball is placed on a kicking tee at the defense’s 30-yard line, and a special kicker (a “placekicker”) kicks the ball to the offense A kick return man from the offense will try to catch the ball and advance it by running. Where he is stopped is the point from which the offense will begin its drive, or series of offensive plays. When a kickoff is caught in the offense’s own end zone, the kick returner can either run the ball out of the end zone, or kneel in the end zone to signal a touchback – a sign to stop the play. The ball is then placed on the 20-yard line, where the offense begins play.

All progress in a football game is measured in yards. The offensive team tries to get as much “yardage” as it can to try and move closer to the opponent’s end zone. Each time the offense gets the ball, it has four downs, or chances, in which to gain 10 yards. If the offensive team successfully moves the ball 10 or more yards, it earns a first down, and another set of four downs. If the offense fails to gain 10 yards, it loses possession of the ball. The defense tries to prevent the offense not only from scoring, but also from gaining the 10 yards needed for a first down. If the offense reaches fourth down, it usually punts the ball (kicks it away). This forces the other team to begin its drive further down the field.

MOVING THE BALL – The Run and the Pass
A play begins with the snap. At the line of scrimmage (the position on the field where the play begins), the quarterback loudly calls out a play in code and the player in front of him, the center, passes, or snaps the ball under his legs to the quarterback. From there, the quarterback can either throw the ball, hand it off, or run with it.

There are two main ways for the offense to advance the ball. The first is called a run. This occurs when the quarterback hands the ball off to a running back, who then tries to gain as many yards as possible by eluding defensive players. The quarterback is also allowed to run with the ball.

The other alternative to running the ball is to throw it. Or as they say in football, pass it! Usually, the quarterback does the passing, though there are times when another player may pass the ball to confuse the defense. Actually, anyone on the offensive team is allowed to pass the ball as long as the pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. A pass is complete if the ball is caught by another offensive player, usually the “wide receiver” or “tight end.” If the ball hits the ground before someone catches it, it is called an incomplete pass.

The defense prevents the offense from advancing the ball by bringing the ball carrier to the ground. A player is tackled when one or both of his knees touch the ground. The play is then over. A play also ends when a player runs out of bounds.

The object of the game is to score the most points. There are four ways to score points in football.

A touchdown is the biggest single score in a football game. It is worth six points, and it allows the scoring team an opportunity to attempt to get an extra point. To score a touchdown, the ball must be carried across the goal line into the end zone, caught in the end zone, or a fumble recovered in the end zone, or an untouched kickoff recovered in the end zone by the kicking team.

Immediately following a touchdown, the ball is placed at the opponent’s two-yard line, where the offense has two options. Usually the offense will kick an extra point, also called the point after touchdown, conversion, or PAT. If the offense successfully kicks the ball through the goal posts, it earns one point. The offense can also score two points by running or throwing the ball into the end zone in the same manner as you would score a touchdown. Since going for two points is more difficult than kicking an extra point, the offense generally chooses to kick the extra point.

If the offense cannot score a touchdown, it may try to kick a field goal. Field goals are worth three points and often are the deciding plays in the last seconds of close games. They can be attempted from anywhere on the field on any down, but generally are kicked from inside the defense’s 45-yard line on fourth down. For a field goal to be “good”, the placekicker (or field goal kicker) must kick the ball through the goal-post uprights and over the crossbar. The defense tries to block the kick and stop the ball from reaching the goal post.

The safety is worth two points. A safety occurs when the offensive ball carrier is tackled behind his own goal line.

While trying to advance the football to the end zone, the offense may accidentally turn the ball over to the defense in one of two ways:

When the ball carrier or passer drops the ball, that’s a fumble. Any player on the field can recover the ball by diving on it or he can run with it. The team that recovers a fumble either gets-or retains-possession of the ball.

An aggressive defense can regain possession of the ball by catching (intercepting) passes meant for players on the other team. Both fumble recoveries and interceptions can be run back into the end zone for touchdowns.


Whichever team has possession of the ball is the offense. While only the quarterback, the wide receivers and tight ends, and the running backs can legally handle the ball, it is the quarterback who is the leader of the team and the playmaker. In fact, he’s a man of many talents – he not only throws the ball, he outlines each play to his team.


  • The quarterback (“QB”) passes or hands off the ball.
  • The center snaps the ball to the QB and blocks the defense.
  • 2 guards and 2 tackles keep the defense at bay.
  • 2/4 wide receivers catch the ball thrown by the QB.
  • 1 or 2 running backs take the ball and run with it.
  • 1 or 2 tight ends block the defense and can also catches passes.

The job of the defense is to stop the offense. The 11 men on the defensive team all work together to keep the offense from advancing toward the defense’s end zone.


  • Linebackers defend against the pass, and push forward to stop the run or tackle the QB.
  • The defensive line (ends and tackles) battles head-to-head against the offensive line.
  • Cornerbacks and safeties defend against the pass from the QB to the wide receiver and help to stop the run.

QB – Quarterback: he’s not just the hunk who always gets the girl in the movies. He controls the game, calling plays and throwing the passes to his team-mates.

WR – Wide Receivers: the fastest players on the team will be the Wide Receivers. When the quarterback tries to pass the ball over longer distances, he will be looking to pick out his wide receivers.

RB – Running Back: This is the guy you see standing beside or behind the quarter-back when the ball is snapped. If the offence opts for a running play the quarter-back will hand the running back the ball and he’ll start legging it until he gets tackled. If there appears to be two running backs and one of them is a bit fatter than the other, the fat one will probably be a Full Back (FB) who is there to block for the other running back.

TE – Tight Ends: Big guys with good hands who line up on the outside of the offensive line. Their unique skill set means they can be used to block or to catch the ball on passing plays. They won’t be the quickest players so they’ll generally be used on short passing plays but their height means they can be picked out even when covered by the defence.

Offensive Line: The big lumps whose job it is to protect the quarter-back on passing plays and create holes in the defensive line during running plays. The guy in the middle is called the Centre (C) and he’s the one who throws the ball through his legs to the quarter-back. Outside of him are the Guards (G) and outside of them are the Tackles (T) . Once the ball is snapped it is rare that these players handle the ball.

Defensive Positions

Defensive Line: Consists of anywhere from three to six players who line up in front of the offensive line. Their job is to occupy the offensive line to allow the linebackers to get to the quarter-back or stop the running back. Exact positions can change, but the defensive line can be made up of Ends (E) and Tackles (T).

Linebackers: These guys they line up behind the defensive line and they’ll sometimes rush the quarter-back looking for a sack or defend potential receivers but their main task is to prevent the run up the middle. The ones lined up on the outside are unsurprisingly known as Outside Linebackers (OL) and the one in the middle is equally unsurprisingly known as the Middle Linebacker (ML).

Defensive Backs: You’ll also hear these players referred to as the secondary and consists of Cornerbacks (CB) and Safeties (S). Their role is to cover the wide receivers, so they need to be quick and mobile to follow the routes. Occasionally they’ll rush the quarter-back on a blitz but this is a risky tactic which leaves the downfield wide open.

Special Teams

They’ve a group of players for attacking, a team for defending and a team for kicking the ball. The kicking and returning units are called special teams and their job is either to kick the ball into the oppositions territory and prevent them from running it back or to receive the ball and get as far back down the field as possible.

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