A Beginners Guide to American Football

It’s a game we hear about all the time here in the UK. But it can be confusing. Here is the basics so you don’t make a fool of yourself when watching the next NFL game in London.

1. The Basics of the teams

The game is played 11v11 at all times on the pitch.
At any one time, there is one teams offensive players on the pitch against the other teams defensive players.
If the offensive team fails to score, or make a first down, they give the ball to the other team.
At that time, a new set of players will come onto the pitch, with the offence replacing he defence for one side, and the defence replacing the offence for the other.
Unlike many sports, very few players play both ways. A player who plays defence will only play defence, and the same for the offence.

2. The Basics of play. 

An offences goal is to score a touchdown.
To do this, the attacking team needs to go down to the field and get to their end zone (think try line in rugby)
Every play starts like this.


The offensive team in blue has the ball on the line of scrimmage (LOS), trying to move the ball down the field.
Once the person with the ball is tackled, all play is stopped, the ball is placed at the spot of the tackle, becoming the new LOS.
In order the keep the ball, the offence gets four chances to gain 10 yards. If that’s attained, they get another set of four downs to make the next 10 yards.
If  the above picture, the graphic on the field says ‘3rd & 5’. This refers to the down and distance to gain for a first down. The offence is on their third attempt, with five yards to gain to get to the first down (shown as the yellow line).
That’s the basics of gameplay, with each team getting the ball, trying to get down the field to the end zone.
If a team feels they are too far away from the first down line, they can choose to punt, or give up possession voluntarily by kicking it to the other team.
S0, if a team feels they are close enough, they can choose to kick a field goal, worth three points. It looks a lot like a penalty kick in rugby, having to travel through the air, between a pair of upright poles.

2. Offence. 

When the offence is on the pitch, there are players who play certain places that have specific jobs. You will often hear them referred to on the broadcast. Here is what you should be listening for.

Quarterback: Probably the most important position on the field for any team in the game. The quarterback is the leader on the pitch. He starts every play and decides what is going to happen. He is the on who will choose to give the ball to a running back, or throw the ball to a receiver, which looks like this.

Wide Receiver:  This is the person who receives the ball, when the quarterback throws it down field. They often stand well away from the QB, depending on how the offence chooses to set up for the play.

Running back: Stands near the quarterback. If the play is designed to stay on the ground, the quarterback will give the ball to the Running Back. It will look  something like this.

That’s an extreme example of one of the best runs in recent history, but you get the idea.

Offensive line: These are the biggest players on the field who block for the other players, getting in the way of the defence. In the previous two videos, you can see them setting the line (think forwards in rugby). They don’t ever touch the ball, besides the centre, who is the one in the middle, responsible for getting the ball to the QB.

For a more in-depth look at offence, click here

3. Defence

The defence is in charge of keeping the opposing offence out of the end zone. They do this by tackling whoever has the ball before they get to the end zone. or by taking the ball away by causing the ball carrier to drop the ball and pick it up, OR by catching a pass the QB throws.
The defence is essentially split into three layers, each responsible for a different job of stopping the offence.

Defensive Line: Goes directly against the offensive line, trying to create as much pressure as possible by getting away from the blocks. There are usually 3-4 of these players with their hands down on the ground, along the LOS.

Linebackers: The second wave of protection. These players, usually 3-4 of them, stand behind the Defensive Line, trying to make tackles of players that get beyond it. These are usually the best tacklers on the team, and anchor the defence.

Defensive secondary: These players guard against the passing game, furthest from the ball, guarding the wide receivers. Their first responsibility is to stop the passing game, either by not allowing the offence to catch it, or by getting an interception, which looks like this.


This is the very basics of gameplay in American football.

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