A Beginner’s Guide to American Football

American football is, quite literally, a whole different ball game to our beautiful game but with the Super Bowl just a matter of hours away, it’s time we all took the time to get our heads around it. Have a read through our beginner’s guide to American football, rustle up some chicken wings and enjoy the big game in the knowledge that you have done your homework. We have even had this guide approved by former quarterback Chris Rowland so you know it’s legit.

A close up of an American football.

The Basics

Let’s start with the basics, the essential details that you need to know about American football. There are 53 active roster players per team, 11 players are allowed to be on the field at any time, the purpose, much like in Rugby, is for one of the teams (the offence) to get the ball down the field into the oppositions’ (the defence) end zone to score, which we’ll move onto a little later.

If the offensive team scores or loses possession, then the roles change with the offence becoming the defence and vice versa. This is continued for four quarters. Each quarter last 15 minutes with a two minute break in between the first and second quarters, a 12 minute break at half time and another two minute break between the third and fourth quarter. The clock also stops when there is a penalty, foul or when a player goes out of bounds or a team calls a timeout ( each team has 3 per half).

The Players

The 11 players are split into three sections: the offence, defence and special teams who come into play for kicking situations.

Just because you asked so nicely, the positions in American football are on offence: Fullback, Halfback, Wide Receivers, Tight End, Guards, Centre, Tackle and Quarterback. In the defence we have Tackles, Ends, Linebackers, Cornerbacks and Safeties.So now we all know.

The Playing Field

The playing field is 100 yards long and 53 yards wide, the game’s progress is measured in yards with the offensive team aiming to get the ball in the opposing team’s end zone. The length of the field is covered with white markings to signify the yardage. There is an extra 10 yards at each end of the field which are the end zones, this is where the players score.


The game begins with kickoff, naturally, where the ball is placed on the defence’s 30 yard line, the placekicker then kicks it towards the offence. From then, it’s is the job of the offence to drive the ball as far as possible up the field towards the end zone. The defence are there to stop this happening, of course. The progress is measured in yards so the objective is to clear as many yards in as a little time as possible to get to the end zone where the points can be secured.

The first and second half of the game is kicked off by the same team, whereas the third and fourth quarters are kicked off by whichever team ended with possession at the end of the previous quarter. Still with me?

The Run and The Pass

Play begins with the line of scrimmage where play begins, this is where the quarterback shouts instructions in code for the team to follow the designed play he called in the huddle (where they all gather before moving to the line of scrimmage). The centre ‘hikes’ the ball quickly back to the quarterback and play starts, the quarterback can then throw, pass or run with the ball towards the end zone.

The offensive team has 4 plays, (called downs) to move the line of scrimmage 10 yards, to get another 4 downs. On 3rd down, depending on the number of yards to the 1st down, the offensive team will chose to “punt” the ball to the defence, try a field goal or “go for it” with a run or passing play.

The run is where the quarterback hands the ball to the running back who then, follows the play called, dodging as many defensive players as possible, hoping to score the end zone . Both of these players can run with the ball.

The other way to move the ball down the field is by the Quarterback passing it, to one of 6 eligible receivers ( wide receivers, tight ends or the running backs). If it is dropped then it’s an incomplete pass.

The Scoring System

There are four different ways to score in American football including the touchdown, extra kick and two point conversion, field goal and safety. Let’s explore those a little further shall we?

Touchdown – this is worth a whopping six points and is when a player carries the ball over the line into the end zone.

Extra kick and two point conversion – worth one or two points, these are played immediately after a touchdown, the ball is placed at the two yard line and the player can either choose to kick the ball over the goal (like in rugby) to score one point or to grab the ball and effectively score a touch down for two points.

Field goal – this is worth three points, and are a strategic part of the game when players aren’t able to make a touchdown. If the distance to the goal is more than 50 yards, the offence will typically punt the ball. If under 50 they will attempt a field goal. They can be attempted from anywhere on the field and must be kicked through the uprights of the goal to count. If the kicker misses the defence gets the ball at the previous line of scrimmage.

Safety – this is worth two point and is awarded when an offensive player is tackled over their own goal line. Sneaky. Then the offence must give the ball back to the defence with by a punt or kick off from their own 20 yard line.


The way that the defence can stop the ball advancing is to bring the offensive player to the ground, one of the offensive player’s knees need to touch the ground to be a full tackle. Play is over when this happens and the teams swap from offence to defence and vice versa.

So now we all know exactly what is going on in an American football game, or at least, we can pretend to.

Words by Clare Potts, with thanks to Chris Rowland for his expert knowledge.

Clare Potts

Clare Potts


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