A Guide to American Football

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 one of the basic guide to American football, we will publish more guides soon.

A Beginner Guide to American Football

America has spawned three unique sports that have established dominance in its culture; baseball, basketball, and American football. Radio technology aided baseball to become ‘America’s pastime’, but in the early 1900s, a new sport was evolving. Taking rules from rugby and football (soccer), American football was born. With the birth of television, it wouldn’t take long for American football to become the king of American sports. The Super Bowl is the second most watched sporting event in the world behind the World Cup, and the NFL is the most profitable sports league fueled by fanatics.

In this guide to American Football I am aiming to introduce the basic concepts of America’s favourite game. I’ll start with this edition covering the basics of Defense and Offense, and a little about the game structure. No guide to American Football would be complete if we didn’t mention downs and plays, so I’ll cover those too. See future article in the series to learn about positions and strategy.

The American Football Pitch

American football is played on a field of 100 yards long by 53 yards wide. The game has a fixed amount of time divided into two distinctive halves that start with a kickoff, with those halves being divided into two quarters each. The premise of the game is to score more points than the opponent, done by advancing the ball down the field. Teams can advance the ball to an “end zone” for a 7-point touchdown or kick it through the upright goalposts for a 3-point field goal. It is the job of the Offense to score those points. It is the job of the Defense to prevent them.

A Guide to American Football the pitch

How is the ball advanced?

There is a vital game within a game of football called a set of downs. A down is a single play, an attempt at moving the ball forward. It’s called a set because you get 4 of them, sort of. Play starts when the ball is ‘hiked’ to another player and is stopped when the ball carrier is tackled, forced out of bounds, scores, or a pass is incomplete. When the Offense gains possession of the ball they get 4 downs to advance the ball, for either a score or to receive a new set of downs, which is attained by advancing 10 yards. If it’s second down and 10 yards to go for a new first down an 11-yard run would accomplish that while a 5-yard advancement would move to the next down and 5 yards to go before a new set of downs. In the previous example, it would lead to a 3rd (down)and 5 (yards to go). On that third down if the 5 yards are obtained they move back to the 1st down and start the process over as they methodically move towards a score or they could fail in their advancement and be faced with a 4th down. If a team does not score or receive a new set of downs by the end of 4th down the ball’s offensive possession goes to the other team who moves in the opposite direction under the same constraints and goals.

What’s American Football Offense?

Both teams put 11 players on the field simultaneously. Where the ball starts is called the line of scrimmage. The basic offensive formation puts 5 Linemen on the line of scrimmage starting with a Center who lines up on the ball. 2 Guards line up on either side of him, and then two Tackles outside of the Guards. behind the Center is a Quarterback. The Center starts crouched over the ball with his fellow Lineman on either side and upon instruction hikes it, often, to the Quarterback.

While other positions get all the glory and accolades, it is these Linemen that make or break a team. As they are the first line of Offense and clash with the first line of Defense, everything else is derivative. Along with the Linemen and Quarterback, a team can field specialised players to either carry the ball or receive catches from the Quarterback as well as block defensive players. Running Backs line up behind the Quarterback while the Receivers line up on the line of scrimmage in a variety of formations outside of the Offensive Linemen.

Differences between American and European Football?

The biggest difference between American football and any other sport I know is its stop-and-go nature.  The Offense runs a play, the play is stopped, and then another play is run.  As the downs are the game within the game, within the finite game clock, there is also a play clock.  In the National Football League, a team is given 40 seconds to decide on a play, relay it to the team and have the team ‘snap’ or ‘hike’ the ball to start the play. As soon as that play is stopped, a new 40-second clock is started. The play is relayed from the coach to the Quarterback, who is the leader on Offense, he would be in a huddle with the other offensive players ten yards or so from the line of scrimmage. The play is conveyed and the Offense marches in unison to the line of scrimmage.  Lineman take up their positions on the line, the Quarterback and Running Backs behind them and Receivers and Tight ends line up outside of the Lineman. The Quarterback shouts a set of commands, such as ‘down, set’ instructing his Offense to get down and get set in their offensive stances. Once they are set they must remain still until the proper command or incur a penalty in the form of lost yardage. Likewise, the Defense cannot cross the line of scrimmage until the ball is snapped.  The Quarterback will try to use inflection and guile to draw the Defense offside but when he is ready will give the command and the ball is hiked to him and the play is on. The advantage of the Offense is foreknowledge. The snap count, the play, the direction, and the receiving routes are all knowledge the Offense has while the Defense is purely reactionary. A good quarterback will have to throw the ball in anticipation of where the receiver will be according to their foreknowledge of the play.

A Guide to American Football the line of scrimmage

What is a play and how does it work?

Our team, ‘the American Examples’, decides to execute a running play and the Quarterback hands the ball off to the Running Back. The Offensive Linemen and Blocking Backs charge into the mouth of the Defense, while the Runner looks for gaps and open space to move forward. He is either tackled, forced out of bounds, scores or fumbles the ball which is a Turnover if the other team gains possession of the ball. If any of those events occur (other than a Turnover), a new 40-second play clock is started. Since our runner only proceeded 2 yards it is now 2nd and 8 (2nd down and 8 yards remaining), we decided to throw the ball. We go through all the same motions as before except this time when the ball is snapped our Receivers streak down and across the field in predetermined patterns designed to confuse the Defense and get Receivers open against superior numbers. Throwing the football is a fast way to move the ball, but is difficult and is open to a defensive interception and they would then gain offensive possession. Doesn’t sound very complicated. Why not run the ball for 3 yards every time or throw the ball long and score often? The answer is Defense.

The Defense on defence

Legendary coach Bear Bryant said, “Defenses win championships”. If the American Examples can hold teams to 10 points or less our chances of winning are phenomenal. While an Offense operates on militaristic qualities, the Defense can be much looser. The lineup will consist of Linemen, Linebackers and Defensive Backs. The Linemen set up on the line of scrimmage and will smash the line to tackle the Quarterbacks or Runners of the opposing team’s Offense for a loss of yardage. Famous nicknames like “The Refrigerator” and “Pork Chop” sum up these giants. Behind them are the Linebackers. Responsible for diagnosing either a run or throwing play and responding accordingly these men are the heart of the Defense with one usually being the literal captain of the Defense. The Cornerbacks and Safetys comprise the Defensive Backs who mostly guard the Receivers during pass plays and a last line of defence versus the running plays. There are different formations and personnel for pass plays, run plays, long yardage, etc. They can play soft and wait for receivers or the play to develop or blitz and get behind the line of scrimmage to tackle for a loss of yardage or sack the Quarterback.

Why is it called Football if it’s just throwing?

There is kicking. Field goals are a score worth 3 points and extra points are added in a kick to give the 7th point atop the 6 given for the touchdown. On 4th down a team can ‘punt’ the ball moving it down the field instead of handing it over to an opponent in a scoring field position. There are also kick-offs after every score and at the beginning of each half. Like a punt, the ball is kicked to a waiting catcher/returner who will, among a few options, try to advance the ball before the Offense takes the field.

What makes American football special?

While football might look like a game of physicality and brutality, which it is, it is also a highly cerebral sport. The best Quarterbacks change plays at the line pre-snap to adjust to what the Defense is doing. The best Defenses can read and adapt quickly. A Receiver will run a route with multiple options according to defensive positioning and the Quarterback must see, process and throw the ball before such adjustments are silently committed. It is a true chess match between coaches and players. American football is without a doubt the best spectator sport. The pace of play builds drama and the games remain close by their nature. It also lends to big plays. A 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. A sack fumble or interception at the end of the game. Football strays from stale 1-0 matches that take all afternoon. Fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting for the next big play and big hit and football delivers over and over.

More on the Guide to American Football to come:

Join Matt next time on the Guide to American Football, where he goes into detail about each position on the field and what they do.