Much like rugby, people who sit down to watch a match for the first time inevitably have to watch it with someone else, as unlike soccer, it’s not an easy game to just understand. With the huge growing in popularity of the NFL on this side of the Atlantic, we’d thought we’d help explain the rules of the game for any sports fan out there curious about the topic.

Field Positions

A single team is made up of a huge number of players, with 53 of the roster standing on the side line. Not all of them appear on the field at once however. There are only 11 allowed on the field at a single time. There are two line-ups, an offense and a defense, and every time the ball changes possession, you’ll see all the players leaving the field to then be replaced by a new 11. Below is the basic line-up for both the defensive and offensive sides.


These are the main 22 players on a team’s roster, but there are also specialist positions. When a conversion is being taken after a touchdown, then there are three new positions on the field, the long snapper (LS) who throws the ball to the holder (H), who is the one who places the ball on the ground and keeps it in position whilst the kicker (K) tries to put it between the uprights (posts). Whilst you have a specialist kicker, you might have a specialist punter (P) for during the game, you can also have a kick-off specialist (KOS) as well as positions for kick returners (KR) and punt returners (PR). The last three positions available on a squad are an Upback, Gunner, and Jammer.

Usually some members of the squad occupy two roles, so the kick off specialist might be the punter and a wide receiver might take on the role of the punt and kick returners.

The Basic Rules

Whilst games like rugby are non-stop, American football is very different, being a continued stop-start game. The offense and opposition defense line up and the ball is placed on the ground. The ball is snapped (passed backwards) to the quarterback and he utilises his running backs and receivers to move the ball forwards. The offense team has four attempts to take the ball forwards ten yards. If they fail to do so, then the opposition team are given possession.

These attempts are called “downs”. So, when you see something like this in the score bar when watching the game: “3rd and 6”, that means that this is the third attempt for the offensive team, and they only have six yards left to travel.

If the quarterback is sacked (tackled) behind where the original line was, then those extra yards are added to that attempt’s yardage. For instance, if we were on the 2nd and 4 (2nd down, 4 yards left) and the QB is tackled by a defensiveplayer 8 yards behind where the ball was snapped from, then the offense’s third attempt will mean they’ll have to travel 12 yards (3rd and 12).

If they achieve those first ten yards, then they are given four attempts to travel another ten yards and so on until they reach the end zone. A player simply needs to be in control of the ball and only the ball needs to be in the end zone for a touchdown to be scored. A touchdown is worth six points. Once a touchdown is scored, the offense can score a conversion, which is worth one point.

However, in a tight game, you might see the team not try to kick the ball for a conversion, but attempt to pass or run it in. If the team does this, then they get two points rather than one.

The ball can switch possession in a few ways. There are interceptions/picks, failed fourth downs, recovered fumbles and punt receiving. Interceptions are when a QB attempts to throw a ball, but one of the defensive backs catches the ball instead of the offensive receivers. No matter which “down” they are on, the ball immediately changes possession. The second option is if the offense cannot travel the ten yards in those four downs. This is why you’ll most commonly see that for the fourth down, the punter will come onto the field so that the team’s last attempt is to simply kick the ball as far down the field as possible. This means that at least some yardage can be gained as possession is going to be lost anyway. A fumble is when a player carrying the ball loses control of it before it touches the ground. A defensive player is then well within his right to pick up the loose ball, and switch possession over to his team.

It’s important to note that sometimes for a fourth down, the kicker might not just punt the ball, but actually aim for goal, which would score them three points.

These rules are just the start, and there are many complicated rules when it comes to tackling and what is deemed as maintaining possession of the ball. We hope this guide has been of some help, so that next time you sit down to watch Jason Bell and Osi Umeniyora talk about the week's games after Match of the Day, you'll be able to enjoy the spectacle, and realise just why quite so many people love this game, including myself.

If you want to learn how the NFL draft works, you can click here, and you can read another piece by me that debates the question: Which is better, American football or rugby?

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