Rules of American Football

American football is one of the most popular sports in the US. Although the game is played worldwide, North American leagues, such as the NFL, are the most competitive and attract the best professional players. In this post, we will cover everything you need to know about the basic rules of American football.  

The Objective of American Football

As is the case with most sports, the primary aim of American football is to score more points than your opponent in the allotted game time. The objective is to get the ball into the end zone for a ‘touchdown’ by either running with the ball or throwing it to a teammate. To achieve this, players on a team move the ball down the pitch in phases of play. 

Each team in a game of American football gets four chances – which are called ‘downs‘ – to move the ball ten yards forwards (this is what constitutes a phase). Once ten yards have been passed, a team’s downs reset, and they begin again for the next ten yards. Once four downs have been passed, and a team has not made it past the required ten yards, the ball then goes to the opposing team. 

How to Score and Win at American Football

A team is awarded six points when a touchdown is scored by one of their players. There are two ways to score a touchdown. The first is when a player in the end zone receives the ball from their teammate via a pass. The second is when the ball is carried to the end zone. 

Once a touchdown is scored, the scoring team has an opportunity to gain an additional point by kicking the ball. A successful kick, in this regard, is when the ball passes between the posts. Teams can also score field goals for three points. When the ball is kicked – from anywhere on the pitch –, and it passes between the posts. This typically happens on the final down. 

The defensive team can score a ‘safety’ when they tackle a player from the attacking team in their end zone. 

A game of American football lasts for four quarters, each of which lasts 15 minutes. The team with the most points at the end of the game is the winner. In a tie situation, games go into overtime, and additional quarters are played until there is a winner. 

American Football Field and Equipment 

An American football field is 120 yards in length and 53.5 yards wide. Goal lines are located at each end of the field, and these are 100 yards apart. There is an additional 10 yards at each end, and this area is known as the end zone, which is the target for touchdowns. 

There is a yard line located at every 5 yards of the field. The yard line marker in the middle is known as the 50-yard line. There are rows of hash marks parallel to the sidelines. At the start of each play, the football is placed on or between these hash marks, ensuring space for teams to line up on both sides of the ball. 

The line of scrimmage is the position of the football, which defines the sides of the ball. The line of scrimmage determines where offensive players must be located. 

At the back of each end zone, there are goal posts that present a scoring method in addition to touchdowns. 

Player Positions 

Defensive players are allowed to take any position they choose and freely move about their side without restrictions. However, although no set rules define defensive roles and positions, some positions have become common over time. 

In contrast, there are several rules which define positions and roles for offensive players. Of the eleven players on a team, seven must line up on the line of scrimmage. The remaining four players must line up at least one yard behind the line of scrimmage. Before the beginning of play, all except one of the offensive players must be set (still). The exception relates to one of the four backs who may be moving away from, or parallel to, the line of scrimmage. 

American football rules dictate that only the players at the end of the line of scrimmage, or the four backs, may run the football or catch a pass. 

Although there are eleven players on the field for a team, American football teams have 45 players. Teams tend to be split into three types of players which are attacking, defense, and special team players. Attacking players tend to be smaller, strong, and fast. This group includes the quarterback who runs the attacking plays

Defense players tend to be bigger built. They are powerful players who excel at stopping offensive players from running. Special team players typically vary between faster and more prominent players, and they are responsible for punting and kicking. 

The Rules of American Football

Games of American football are divided into fifteen-minute quarters, of which there are four in a standard game. Half time happens between the second and third quarters. This is a break that lasts for fifteen minutes. There are also breaks lasting for two minutes between the first and second quarters and between the final two quarters. 

At the start of a game of American football, a coin toss is used to determine which team gets the ball first. This team also gets to decide which side of the pitch they would like to start on. Games begin with a kick-off. This is when one team kicks the ball down the field as far as possible for the opposing team to then run back with. 

Each team is permitted four downs in which they attempt to make it ten yards or more down the pitch’s length. To make the required yards, they can either throw the ball or run with it. Once a team achieves the required yards, the yardage and downs reset. If a team does make the required yards after four downs, the play turns over to the defensive team, and it is their turn to attack. 

In any given down, there are many different plays that players can run on. Teams make these up and typically involve players running all over the place in a variety of routes. It is often referred to as organized chaos. The defensive captain calls the plays for their team while the quarterback or head coach calls the plays for the attacking team. 

On the fourth down, the offensive team can choose whether they will kick the ball or attempt to make up the yards they need. If they decide to kick the ball, they may either try a field goal or punt the ball. This decision is usually made in relation to their location on the pitch at this point. If teams are within forty yards of their opposition’s goal, they tend to attempt the field goal. 

In American football, each team has eleven players on the pitch at any given time. Teams are allowed free substitutions and may use these between plays. 

Several fouls incur penalties in a game of American football. Depending on whether the foul is against the defensive or offensive team, most penalties will result in either a gain or loss of yardage. The number of yards is determined by the severity of the foul. Most are either five or ten yards lost or gained but can be as much as fifteen yards in some cases. 

Interference with a pass can result in a penalty equal to the length of that intended pass. The team being fouled against has the right to decline a penalty. 

Some of the most common situations where penalties are given include: 

  • A false start, which is when an offensive player moves before the snap (excluding the one permitted back) 
  • Holding, which is when a player grabs, hooks, or tackles an opposing player without the ball
  • Offside, which is when a player is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage at the time of a snap
  • Facemask, which is when a player grabs another’s protective facemask 
  • Roughing the kicker or passer, which is when a player runs into them after the ball has been kicked or thrown
  • Pass interference, which is when a player prevents a pass receiver from catching the ball by contact while the ball is in the air
  • Ineligible receiver downfield, which is when an offending player is more than five yards downfield from the line of scrimmage during a forward pass, but they are not an eligible receiver 
  • Intentional grounding, which is when a passer throws the ball to avoid being sacked even though there is no eligible receiver near

Although American football rules are complex and do sometimes vary depending on the level of play, these are the standard and most basic rules. Knowing the rules explained in this article will help you understand and enjoy the game better, whether you are a player or a spectator.