American Football Positions, The Quarterback

Matt, our Vegas-based writer offers betting tips on all American Sports each week. He has also provided this basic guide to American Football, in the form of a series. So that non-Americans can get an understanding of the game, its strategy and key teams. This is part two of the basic guide to American football. Part one covers the basics of American Football. This article explains all of the American Football positions and what their role on the team is.

American Football Positions

American football positions on Offense:

  • Quarterback: The captain and centrepiece of the Offense. They will touch the ball every play and either hand off the ball to a Running Back, run it himself or throw it to a Receiver.
  • Running Back: Lines up in the backfield and is utilised by receiving the ball from the Quarterback and running forward. On pass plays Running Backs can stay to block defenders or run passing routes to become a Receiver.  Full Backs are larger Running Backs mainly utilised to block for the Running Back.
  • Wide Receiver: Lined up on the line of scrimmage but wide of the Lineman and ball. The Wide Receivers run precise routes down the field to catch the ball for long advancement, deception or blocking.
  • Tight ends: Larger Wide Receivers that often line up along the Lineman and help with blocking.
  • Offensive Lineman: Center, Guards and Tackles Line up on the line and on the ball.
American Football Positions The Running Back

American Football Positions: The Running Back

Offensive Positions

The Quarterback

The Offense’s central piece is the Quarterback. The Quarterback is the leader, the decision maker and the passer. At the NFL level it’s one of the hardest jobs. There are mainly two types of plays, running and passing.  A Quarterback lines up directly behind the Center or a few yards behind. Called shotgun formation, a term for being a few yards behind, which is beneficial for certain pass plays and deception. The best Quarterbacks are as intelligent as engineers, the most athletic men on the field and can throw a football 70 yards with precision. Without a doubt the most difficult American football position. The Quarterback instantly has to read the defensive personnel and formations and how they relate to their own play call. With his original play, the Quarterback has several audible plays he can announce to his team, changing the play on the fly,  knowing every route and nuance. He then must execute the play where simply handing the ball off with monsters running at you is beyond daunting. Throwing the ball to lightning-fast Receivers through specifically designed defences is simply doing the impossible.

This high-profile job gets all the glory and money if you can deliver. Patrick Mahomes, who is one of the greatest ever and still playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, recently signed a 450 million dollar contract. While NFL legends Tom Brady, and Dan Marino were more apt to stand behind the lineman and be “pocket passers” there has been a new wave of running Quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson embody this new type of running Quarterback style. American football positions evolve just as the game does. There are rules to protect Quarterbacks, they get long contracts and are the faces of franchises and the league. Quarterbacks are without a doubt the most important part of the team and possibly the most demanding job on the field.

The Scrimmage Line

Most plays in American Football start from the position of the ball at the end of the previous play. This is called the Line of Scrimmage. On this Line of Scrimmage, sits the football and the first player to touch the ball is called a Center. On either side of him, along the Line of Scrimmage are Offensive Guards. Going one more position outward, we find the Offensive Tackles who comprise the offensive line. A Lineman’s job is to block the Defense creating space for running plays and protecting the Quarterback on passing plays. Teams with bad Offensive Lines simply cannot win in the NFL.

The Tackles on the end are lined up horizontally and responsible for their counterpart in a crucial battle. Opposing NFL defensive stars, the Offensive Tackle has a difficult and important task on the field, to protect the most important position, the Quarterback. They usually receive the best and longest contracts of all the Offensive line. The Quards on the inside are called upon to pull out of position on wide running plays and to block downfield against bigger Linebackers and can be slightly smaller and more mobile. Any long running play usually has a Guard blocking downfield. John Madden, legendary coach and commentator, summed up offensive line play the best. “BOOM”. Goliaths going to war on every play in larger-than-life collisions. The winner of the battle of Offensive and Defensive lines, dictates the game.

Backs, running and catching

The Center starts with the ball, upon a pre-agreed command hikes it to the Quarterback. Also directly behind the offensive line, in the backfield, are the Running Backs.

The majority of the Running Backs’ duties will be receiving a handoff of the ball and running it forward as far as he can, as a bulldozer might advance through a solid stone building. With the help of his Offensive Line and maybe a Fullback, a bigger blocking-oriented Running Back, he runs headlong into outnumbering defenders. The biggest and best hits of football are these collisions.

There are smaller, faster Backs like Barry Sanders, designed to dodge and juke. To large powerhouses like Travis Henry that run straight through everything. The Running Back embodies the big hits and excitement that is football. The back lines up ten yards behind the Line of Scrimmage, is handed the ball and runs full speed into a brick wall that’s trying to kill him. The NFL average by position for Running Backs is low because teams have to have so many, but top NFL Running Backs are making 12-15 million a year. Short careers unfortunately plague this position due to the physicality. Versatility is part of this utilitarian position. Christian McCaffrey is the centrepiece runner on the 49ers Offense that can line up anywhere and be dangerous, he even has a passing touchdown. The best Running Backs can read defences, slip through small spaces and break away for long runs. On passing situations, these backs will be called upon to block blitzing defenders or run passing routes down the field. But that is primarily the job of another American football position, the Wide Receiver.

Wide Receivers line up primarily along the Line of Scrimmage, wide of the Offensive Lineman. They come into play during the passing game. There can be 0 to 5 of them in a formation and can run long pass routes, shallow screen routes, in-between routes, in, out, slants etc. NFL playbooks are made up of hundreds of pages of intricacies in passing routes.

Tight Ends are larger receivers that can line up next to Lineman and block or run pass routes, they add versatility and ambiguity to a formation. Wide Receivers are generally the fastest men on the field. A good Receiver can read the defense, run appropriate routes and options and be in perfect sync with the Quarterback. The Buffalo Bills’ Wide Receiver, Stefan Diggs, is one of the best route runners in the game. Seemingly open every time in the midst of a sea of defenders.

Any Wide Receiver will tell you they are at least the second most important player on the team, and in some cases, they’d be right. Jerry Rice helped show the NFL what a great receiver and passing game could do and NFL legends Randy Moss and Terrell Owens could dominate a game with their presence and talent. The fastest men on the field with hands of glue that are crushed by defenders all game while making highlight reel plays.

American football positions on Defense:

  • Defensive Lineman: Nose Tackles, Guards, Tackles and Defensive Ends can all line up on the defensive line, depending on the formation.
  • Linebacker: Behind and outside of the Lineman, the Linebackers are the captains of the Defense.
  • Cornerback: Lining up wide, opposite of the Receivers the Cornerbacks are responsible for guarding Receivers on pass plays.
  • Safety: Behind the Linebackers and the last line of defence are the Safetys.
American Football Positions The Linebacker

American Football Positions: The Linebacker

Defensive Positions

Defenses are comprised of Defensive Lineman, Linebackers, and Defensive Backs and multiple formations. A 3-4 (3 Lineman and 4 Linebackers) and 4-3 are the most common formations. With nickel and dime formations having 5 and 6 Defensive Backs to guard against passes. There are fewer rules about where the Defense lines up, formations, positions, etc. Along the line are the Lineman. Nose tackles, Guards, Tackles and Defensive Ends. They line up across from the Offensive Lineman and go head to head like Brahma bulls every play. With one sack or a tackle for loss, a tipped pass, these monsters can change a game with one play and they give literal seconds to avoidance. When people talk of the best teams in the NFL they talk about Joey Bosa and Aaron Donald as the best players in the league, not just on Defense, due to their ability to affect games. Donald just signed a 3 year 95 million dollar contract for his work.

The most important American football position on Defense are the Linebackers. They must defend against the run and pass equally, diagnosing and disrupting the play expertly every time. One or 2 Middle Linebackers and 2 Outside Linebackers are used. A Middle Linebacker is the captain of the Defense, shouting plays and adjustments and is often the baddest man on the planet. Simply looking at Ray Lewis or Jack Lambert coming to tackle you would make most men retire. A Defense is only as good as its Middle Linebacker, the anchor.

Defensive Backs are split between Safetys, who line up behind the Linemen. The last line of defence, Safetys provide help for pass and run plays and launch like hard-hitting missiles. Big losses on Offense happen when a Safety reads and blows up a play. Cornerbacks are on the Line of Scrimmage opposite of the Wide Receivers and are generally used as pass protection. Having a ‘shut down corner’ means you have a dominant one and that side of the field or Wide Receiver is shut down. Deion “Prime Time” Sanders exemplifies the position. Watching Sanders and Jerry Rice battle, for a high step an interception in for a touchdown is football classic footage. Usually, 2 of each are on the field, which can change easily with formations and versatile personnel.

People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses or the problems of modern society – Vince Lombardi