With the 53rd Super Bowl approaching this Sunday, the annual event should be as big as ever.
The defining moment of the NFL season is always a great time for sports fans curious to indulge in American football. The problem? It’s a complicated sport.
There is no need to worry, because Extra.ie have your back. So sit down, put on your reading glasses and let us guide you through the ins and outs of grilling.
How many are in a team?
Let’s start with the basics. Each team is separated into two different units: attack and defense.
Unlike most popular field sports in this part of the world, a team’s attack and defense are completely separate entities, which means that a team’s defense watches from the touchline while the attack is doing its job.
All in all, there are over two dozen roles on any team on game day, but we’ll explain how those are broken down later.
Alright, so how do you actually play the game?
Fair question. Possession in American football is divided into separate 10-yard sections. A team receives four “downs” to advance the ball 10 yards – if successful, they receive four new downs to start again.
To move up the field, an attacking team is only allowed one forward pass. This is usually done by the quarterback, which is absolutely the most important position in the sport.
The QB can either pass the ball forward to a teammate or try to run himself through the sea of bodies in front of him. He can also do a bit of both with a few side passes – called “laterals” – but let’s not complicate things too much.
A “down” is used when a player who receives the ball is tackled to the grass or when the QB decides to throw it himself and is then tackled to the ground. The offense then tries again to reach that 10-yard target before the process begins again.
To use a football analogy, the offense in American football is built entirely around set pieces, called “plays”. There are thousands and thousands of strategies that an offense can deploy, while dealing with the defensive system of their opponents, which can change the way they defend on a given point between each try.
It should also be remembered that when a pass fails to find its target (known as an “incomplete play”), the defense cannot simply pick it up on the field and claim possession. Possession can only be won by an interception (catching the ball in the air), a fumble, or the opposition running out of downs.
An American football field (or pitch as they call it) is 120 yards long and 53.3 yards wide. Like the tryout area in rugby, there is a 10m area at each end of the pitch where you can score.
If a team fails to reach 10 yards after three of their tries, they tend to either kick the ball (like kicking the ball for territory in rugby) or attempt a field goal (worth three points) before possession don’t go to the other team. .
How do you score?
In addition to kicking for field goals, a team must get the ball into the end zone from 10 yards across the field to score. This is called a “touchdown”, and it is worth six points. Interestingly, you don’t need to point the ball like in rugby. A player just needs to be in possession of the ball when going through the whitewash.
The scoring team then gets a kick on goal (worth one point); which is extremely similar to try and convert in rugby.
Unlike rugby, however, there is a second option. You can opt for a two-point conversion, which sees the ball placed on the 10-yard line, with the attack getting a free shot to drive the ball over the line for a delicious two points.
Defenses can also score, but that tends to be quite rare. If the attacking team “fumbles” the ball, or if a pass is intercepted (also known as a “pick”), the defense is free to run to the opposing end zone for their own touchdown.
If the defense successfully tackles an opposing player when they receive the ball in the end zone, this is called a “safety” and is only worth two points for the offensive team.
So who are all these guys on the pitch?
As we mentioned earlier, there are 46 players per team. Eleven players are allowed on the pitch in regular play for attack, and the same goes for defense. Let’s start with the offense, which consists of:
- The Live Six Offensive: which consists of two guardsof them tackles and one center all of which protect the quarterback and running backs.
- Two four wide receivers who can catch the ball in the distance, or else block defenders when the QB decides to run.
- One. Two tight ends who catches the ball or blocks depending on the game.
- One. Two running backs who are free to run the ball, or potentially block for the quarterback.
- The famous strategist, which sets everything in motion. He can pass, run or hand the ball to a ball carrier.
On the defense side, we have:
- the defensive linethe frontline wall of defenders who sit in front of the defense and try to stop the quarterback or running back from moving the ball.
- the linebackers who push forward and try to tackle the quarterback or running back.
- Cornerbacks and securities who are usually placed on the sidelines and are responsible for stopping passes to receivers. They tend to be your fastest defenders.
And that’s not all ! Besides these 22 players above, we also have specialist positions.
When a conversion is made after a touchdown, there are then three new positions on the field: the long snapper who throws the ball to the holder, who is the one who puts the ball on the ground and holds it in position while the kicker tries to put it between the posts.
You can also have a punter, whose job is to kick the ball down the pitch when needed, while you can even have a kick-off specialist. A player can occupy more than one specialist position, which means that a wide receiver can assume the role of a punter for example.
How long does a match last?
A single match lasts 60 minutes and is divided into four 15-minute quarters with a 12-minute halftime interval in between. The Super Bowl halftime is a bit longer and usually lasts between 20 and 30 minutes.
There is also a two-minute break at the end of the first and third quarters, and if a team controls the ball at the end of these periods, they keep it at the start of the next quarter.
Although a match is supposed to last 60 minutes, it takes a lot (many) longer than that for the whole affair to be effectively over.
Just before the start of any game, both teams have 40 seconds to decide their strategy and how they wish to line up on the field for that given game.
The clock can stop for a number of reasons, these being the ball running out, a penalty or an incomplete passing game.
If the two teams are tied at the end of the fourth quarter, then a 15-minute overtime period will be played. It rarely lasts the full 15 minutes, as the first team to score a touchdown wins.
Other practical tips
- An infraction can actually add to the 10 yards they have to run. If the receiver ends up getting the ball behind the original line and is successfully tackled by the defense, then their distance increases. For example: let’s say you are on a 2nd down with five meters to go. If your QB backs up two yards and is tackled, then you’re on 3rd down with seven to go.
- The defense is pronounced “dee-fence”; don’t bother trying to dodge that fact.
- A prolonged passage of play as the attack progresses down the pitch is known as “drive”.
- Some quarterbacks are known for passing skills (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers), some for running (Cam Newton), or some are good at both (Pat Mahomes)
- If you are a keen rugby player, the rules of tackling in American football are much more liberal than what you are used to. Prepare for high tackles.
- If you are confused by the words “1st and 10” or “4th and goal” on the screen, it simply means which down the attack is on and how many yards they have to go. “And Goal” is used when a team is within 10 yards of the end zone.