Okay, so you’re new to the sport: What is American Football? And how is it played? Here are the basics about the rules and gameplay of American Football.
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How To Play American Football
American football is 11 players versus 11 players. The team with the ball, the offense, wants to move the ball all the way to the other end of the field to score points. The team without the ball, the defense, wants to stop them.
The American football field is 100 yards long, with an additional 10 yards on each end of the field called the “end zone.” (So the field is actually 120 yards in total.) The end zone is where the offense wants to move the ball to in order to score. The football field is 53.3 yards wide.
How does the game start?
American football begins with a Kick-Off. One team kicks the ball to the other team, then the other team’s offense gets the ball. A Kick Off occurs to start the game, and again after most scores—where the scoring team kicks the ball off to the opposing team.
When the offense has the ball, it is called a “possession” for that team; the offense is “possessing” the ball.
When the offense possesses the ball, they have four chances—four “downs”—to get 10 yards. If they cannot move the ball 10 yards, the other team takes over possession of the ball.
What is a first-down?
A “first down” is when the offense moves the ball more than 10 yards and earns the chance to keep the ball in their possession. A first down resets the downs, meaning that the offense gets another four chances to earn 10 yards and keep moving the ball down the field towards the end zone.
If the offense cannot earn 10 yards, the defense has stopped them and the other team gets the ball. Often times, if the offense cannot get a first down in their first 3 attempts, the offense will punt the ball on 4th down.
What is a punt?
A punt is a kick that gives the ball to the other team. It is a tactical decision in American football. If your offense did not get a “first down” in the first three tries, the offense can opt to kick the ball far down the field on 4th down—so that the other team, when they get the ball, has a much longer distance to move the ball to score in the end zone.
How does the offense move the ball?
Every play on offense starts with the “snap.” One player gives the ball to the Quarterback. Once the “snap” has occurred, the play begins.
The offense can then throw or run the ball to move down the field.
A run is when an offensive player carries the ball and runs as far as they can until the defense tackles them. A pass, otherwise known as the “forward pass,” is when an offensive player—almost always the Quarterback—passes the ball to a teammate, who is running down the field.
How to Score in Football
There are two primary ways to score in American football—touchdowns and field goals.
What is a touchdown?
A touchdown is worth 6 points. A touchdown occurs when the offense moves the ball all the way into the end zone, either by pass or run. A touchdown is worth 6 points—but it is always followed by an “extra point” opportunity. More on that below…
What is a field goal?
A field goal is worth 3 points. A field goal is scored by kicking the ball through the yellow goal posts that are situated in the back of the end zone.
If an offense is close enough to the end zone, but is stopped by the defense before they can earn a first down—frequently they choose to kick a field goal on 4th down for the chance to earn 3 points.
Field goals are usually kicked if the offense is within 30-yards of the end-zone, though they can be attempted from any distance.
The longest field goal in the history of the National Football League (NFL) is from 66 yards. Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens set this record on September 26, 2021.
What is the extra point?
The extra point occurs after a touchdown. When a touchdown is scored, the offense has the chance to add 1 or 2-extra points.
A “one point” extra point attempt is a field goal kick. In college football, the extra point is kicked from the 3-yard line; in the NFL, the extra point is kicked from the 15-yard line—making it a further and more difficult kick than in college.
A “two point” extra point attempt is when the offense runs a play—like a run or a pass—to earn 2 “extra points” after a touchdown. In the NFL, the “two point attempt” as it’s called is run from the 2-yard line; in college, the “two point attempt” is run from the three-yard line.
The extra point is sometimes called the “P.A.T.” which stands for “point after touchdown.”
Typically, most teams will choose to attempt to kick the extra point to earn one additional point after a touchdown. The two point attempt is historically more difficult to convert, and therefore is not frequently used until late-game situations—when teams are losing and want to try to come back faster.