A to Z of American football

DON’T know a blitz from a sack? Ever wondered what role a tight end plays in the NFL or why your favourite player has just been penalised for unnecessary roughness?

From audibles to zebras, things become a little clearer thanks to’s A to Z of American football terminology.

American Football Conference – The NFL is split into two 16-team conferences. At the end of each regular season, the top six AFC teams will play off against each other in a bid to decide the AFC champion, who will then meet the NFC (National Football Conference) champion in the Super Bowl.

Audible – A last-second change from the play already decided upon in the huddle. The quarterback shouts in code to change the play once he and his teammates are at the line of scrimmage. Usually occurs when the quarterback sees something in the opposing defence which means the original play called would not be successful.


Backfield – The area behind the line of scrimmage where the running backs line up and the quarterback throws passes. Also the collective name for running backs and quarterbacks.

Ball – Smaller and considerably harder than a rugby ball, the American football is sphere-shaped and weighs between 14 and 15 ounces. The ball is covered in a grainy, tan-coloured leather and is often referred to as a pigskin.

Ball Control – A strategy that involves the offense keeping possession of the ball for long periods of time. The best way to do this is to run the ball often as the clock continues to count down on running plays, whereas incompletions on passing plays automatically stop the clock. The theory of a ball control attack is that the longer the offensive team has possession, the less time the opponent has to generate a scoring drive.

Bench area – Each team has a bench area on opposite sides of the pitch. The area – which stretches 36 yards from the two 32-yard lines – is filled with players, coaches and support staff. Players venturing out of the bench area are likely to be penalised by the officials.

Blindside – The area outside the quarterback’s vision. This is the most dangerous place for a quarterback to receive a hit from a defender as he doesn’t see the pressure coming.

Blitz - A defensive play where a team sends more than the usual four defensive lineman after the opposing quarterback. A blitz will usually see a linebacker or defensive back provide extra pressure on the quarterback. Can be a risky play for a defence as blitzing means one less player is dropping back into coverage to defend against the pass.

Blocking – A key part of American football. Blocking is the legal effort by an offensive player to obstruct a defender in order to complete successful running or passing plays. On running plays, offensive players block defenders in order to stop them tackling the ball carrier. On passing plays, offensive linemen aim to prevent rushing defenders from reaching the quarterback as he throws downfield.

Bomb – A long pass completion.

Bootleg – A deceptive move by the quarterback where he fakes handing the ball to the running back and then hides the ball against his hip as he runs around one end of the line of scrimmage. After bootlegging to the end of the line, quarterbacks can either throw to open receivers or run downfield on their own.

Bump and run – A defensive technique employed by the cornerbacks covering opposing wide receivers. The defender hits the receiver as he comes off the line and then runs downfield with him. The technique is aimed at disrupting the finely-tuned timing between a wide receiver and his quarterback.


Center – The player in the middle of the offensive line who snaps the ball between his legs to the quarterback. Is the man charged with calling out blocking assignments for the offensive linemen.

Chain gang – A group of six men who assist the officials in yardage marking. The chains measure 10 yards in length and have a post at each end. The first post sits on the line of scrimmage and then the chain stretches 10 yards to the second post, which signifies the line needed to pass to pick up a first down.

Clipping – A dangerous and illegal block in which a player takes out his opponent from behind.

Coin toss – A pre-game ceremony to determine who kicks off, who receives the ball and in which direction the teams will play.

Commissioner – The head man in the National Football League and arguably the most powerful man in sports. Paul Tagliabue has held the position of NFL Commissioner since November 1989, when he succeeded Pete Rozelle, who held the post from 1960 to 1989.

Completion – A forward pass that is successfully caught by an eligible receiver.

Cornerback – A defender charged with covering the opposing team’s wide receiver. There are usually two cornerbacks – one on each side of the field. Usually the noisiest players on a team, the only thing that moves faster than a cornerback’s feet is his mouth.

Cut – The term used to describe a player changing direction on the pitch.


Delay of Game – A 5-yard penalty that occurs when the offense fails to snap the ball into play within the 40-second window allowed from the end of the previous play.

Down – A play from scrimmage – the offense gets four downs (or chances) to gain 10 yards in order to pick up a new set of four downs.

Draft – The annual process in which the leading college players from across America are selected by the 32 NFL teams. There are seven rounds in the draft – which takes place in New York each April. The worst team from the previous season picks first, while the best teams goes last. And so on until the seven rounds are completed.

Draw – A fake pass play that ends up being a run. The quarterback drops back to pass and his offensive linemen drop back in pass protection. But the quarterback then hands the ball to a running back who runs upfield in the space created by defenders who are going after the quarterback.

Drop – 1. The movement of the quarterback after the snap as he retreats into the backfield to set up to pass. 2. The movement of a defender as he retreats to cover a receiver downfield. 3. When the receiver lets the ball hit the ground after it has hit his hands on a forward pass.


End Zone – The 10-yard scoring areas at each end of the pitch. A player must carry the ball into the end zone or catch the ball in this area to score a touchdown.

Extra point – The kicked conversion from just in front of the goalposts following a touchdown. Worth one point.


Face mask – The protective cage or bars on the front of a player’s helmet. Tackling a player by grabbing his face mask is a penalty ranging from 5 to 15 yards depending on the severity.

False start – A penalty called when a player on offense begins to move out of his set stance before the ball has been snapped into play.

Field – The field – or pitch – is 100 yards long and 53 yards and 1 foot wide. The end zones are 10 yards deep. Yard markings cover the field to enable players, officials and fans to judge distances covered etc.

Field goal – A score worth three points. The kicker scores three points when he sends the ball through the posts and over the crossbar, in much the same way as a penalty kick in rugby. However, unlike rugby, the opposing team rushes the kicker in an attempt to block the kicks.

Flag – The yellow duster thrown on the pitch by any of the seven officials means a penalty has been committed during the play.

Flat – The area on either side of the line of scrimmage between the final offensive lineman and the sideline. An area where short passes are often thrown to running backs coming out of the backfield.

Formation – The alignment of offensive and defensive players on a given play.

Free agent – A player who is out of contract and can be signed by any NFL team.

Fullback – A large running back who lines up behind the quarterback. Much heavier and stronger than ball-carrying running backs known as halfbacks, the fullback often acts as an extra blocker and usually only carries the ball in situations where a small amount of yards are needed to gain a first down and a strong running style is the best approach.

Fumble – Too many of these and a player will lose his job. A fumble is when the ball carrier loses possession of the football. Any player on both teams can recover a fumble.


Gameplan – The strategy a team will employ during an upcoming match. Includes plays they think will work best against that week’s opponent and more general tactics such as running the ball more against one team and passing more against another.

Goal line – The line that marks the start of the end zone. A player scores a touchdown when any part of the ball is above or over the goal line.

Guard – Two offensive linemen situated either side of the center.


Hail Mary – A desperation pass downfield usually employed at the end of a half or game. A team will send four or five receivers to one side of the field and have them run downfield into the same area of the end zone. The quarterback will then throw a high pass into the area in the hope that one of his receivers will come down with the football amidst the confusion in the end zone.

Halfback – The featured ball carrier among the two running backs lined up behind the quarterback. Generally, the halfback is the fastest member of the backfield and can also catch passes to pose a double threat to defenders.

Halftime – The break between the second and third quarters. Last 12 minutes during the regular season and 20 minutes during the Super Bowl. A time for coaches to prepare second half strategy.

Handoff – Giving the ball – hand to hand – to another player. Usually occurs when the quarterback hands the ball to the halfback on running plays.

Hashmarks – The lines that run one yard apart down the centre of the field. They are located 70 feet and 9 inches from each sideline. If a play ends on the right side of the pitch, the next play will begin from the right hashmark. A play ends on the left, the next play begins on the left hashmark and so on.

Helmet – Protective equipment worn to protect a player’s head. Used to be made of leather in the early days of the NFL and did not have face masks for added protection. Now made to the highest safety standards possible to prevent serious injury and even death.

Holder – One player (the holder) is allowed to prop the ball up for the kicker on field goal and extra point attempts. The holder kneels seven yards behind the line, receives the snap from the center and places the ball on the ground for the kicker to send flying through the posts. The holder is usually a backup quarterback or the punter.

Holding – A penalty called for the illegal grabbing or grasping of another player. Usually called on offensive linemen attempting to block defenders.

Hole – The space opened by blockers for a ball carrier.

Huddle – The brief gatherings of the offense and defence between plays to outline what the next play will be.


I-formation – An offensive formation in which the running backs line up one behind the other directly behind the quarterback.

Incomplete pass – A pass that has neither been caught by a member of the offense or intercepted by a member of the defence.

Ineligible receiver – A player who cannot legally catch a forward pass. This includes all offensive linemen (centers, guards and tackles) and any receiver who has stepped out of bounds during the play and then comes back onto the pitch to make a catch.

Instant Replay – System where televison replays are used to establish the outcome of disputed plays. TV cameras can show the play in question from several different angles, allowing the official looking at a monitor down on the pitch to make his decision.

Interception – A change of possession where the defence wins the ball back for its offense by catching a pass that was intended for the opposing team’s receiver.

Interference – A penalty called when a player impedes an opponent as he attempts to catch a pass.


Kicker – Specialist who comes onto the field just to handle kickoffs, field goal and extra point attempts.


Lateral – A pass that goes backwards – much like a pass in rugby. A team can throw as many lateral passes as it likes on any play, although NFL clubs rarely lateral the football as the play is deemed to risky and possession too valuable. More often used in desperation circumstances to confuse the defence.

Linebacker – Athletic versatile defenders (usually three on the field at any one time) who line up in the middle of the defence behind the defensive linemen and in front of the cornerbacks and safeties who make up the secondary. Linebackers have several tasks including stopping opponent’s running plays, covering receivers on passing plays or pressuring the quarterback into mistakes.

Locker room – The American term for the dressing room. Much like football dressing rooms except much bigger and generally much fancier.


Motion – The moving of an offensive player from one position on the field to another prior to the snap which signifies the start of the play. Receivers, tight ends and running backs are the players most likely to go in motion to confuse the defence.

Muff – When a player drops a punt and the ball becomes free for players from both teams to gather up.


National Football Conference – The other 16-team conference that makes up the NFL. See American Football Conference for more details.

Neutral zone – The space (the length of the ball) between the offensive and defensive lines at the start of each play.

Nickel defence – A defensive formation adopted in situations where the offense is expected to pass. A fifth defensive back is brought onto the field to cover opposing wide receivers, usually at the expense of a linebacker.


Offense – The team with the ball.

Officials – The NFL uses seven officials to control games led by the referee and then the umpire, head linesman, line judge, back judge, side judge and the field judge.

Offside – A penalty called when any part of a player’s body is across the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped into play.

Onside kick – A short kickoff that carries the required 10 yards and allows the kicking team to recover what is a live ball available to players from  both sides. Often used in desperate situations where the kicking team needs to regain possession of the ball quickly in a game’s dying moments.

Option pass – A trick play where the quarterback hands the ball to a running back and the ball carrier has the option to either run with the ball or throw it to a receiver downfield.

Out of bounds – A player is deemed out of bounds if he touches or crosses the six-foot wide, solid white boundary line that rims the pitch.

Overtime – The extra 15-minute period added on to regular season games to try to break ties. Also known as ‘sudden-death overtime’ because the first team to score in any manner wins the game. In playoff games, as many overtime periods as needed to determine a winner are played.


Pass – One of two ways for an offense to move the football. Passes are usually thrown by the quarterback.

Pass pattern – The route a receiver runs before he catches a pass from the quarterback. This is pre-determined in the huddle before the play so the quarterback knows exactly where his receiver will be.

Pass rush – The charge by any defensive player or players in order to pressure the quarterback as he attempts to pass the ball.

Penalty – A foul signified by the throwing of a yellow flag on the field.

Penetration – Movement of defensive linemen across the line of scrimmage and into the offensive backfield. Good penetration into the backfield can disrupt many plays before they have the chance to get started.

Pitch – A long underhanded toss, usually using both hands, from the quarterback to a running back on running plays.

Play action pass – A deceptive play where the quarterback pretends to hand the ball to a running back in the hope of bringing defenders and in particular defensive backs closer to the line of scrimmage. Quarterback then pulls the ball away from the running back and throws to a receiver downfield.

Playbook – A confidential collection of a team’s plays, including diagrams, strategies and terminologies. Each player is expected to know his playbook like the back of his hand and these books are usually filled with more than 300 pages of plays and schemes.

Pocket – The protected area around the quarterback formed by his blockers as he passes.

Power sweep – A running play around the end of the line in which the ball carrier is led by both offensive guards as the offense attempts to overpower the defence in one area of the field.

Prevent defence – A conservative defensive approach usually adopted when protecting a large lead late in games. Defence will guard against long pass plays by having more defensive backs retreat into coverage. This allows the offense to complete time-consuming short passes but not costly big gains or scores.

Punt - A kick out of the hands by the punter on fourth down after the offense has failed to pick up a first down. The punting team kicks the ball away to ensure the other club has poorer field position when taking over on offense.


Quarter – A 15-minute playing period. Four quarters make up an NFL game.

Quarterback – The leader of an offense. Instructs teammates in the huddle between plays, receives the snap from the center to begin a play and then either runs with the ball himself, hands it to a running back or passes to a receiver downfield.

Quarterback sneak – A play used in short yardage situations as the quarterback takes the snap from the center and immediately runs forward behind his blockers.


Reverse -  A play designed to trick the defence as the quarterback hands the ball to a running back heading in one direction and that running back then gives the ball to a receiver coming back the other way behind the line of scrimmage.

Roll out – The action of the quarterback as he moves across the backfield area towards the sideline as he prepares to pass. This is the alternative to the straight drop back before passing.

Roughing the passer – A 15-yard penalty slapped on any defensive player who runs into or hits the quarterback after he has thrown the ball downfield.

Run – One of two ways for the offense to move the ball. This involves either the quarterback or running back carrying the ball while running through the defence.

Running back – A general classification for halfbacks and fullbacks, whose primary responsibility is to run with the football.


Sack – A big play for the defence. A sack occurs when the quarterback is tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a loss after he has dropped back to pass.

Safety – 1. A two-point scoring play usually caused by the ball carrier being tackled by a defender in his own end zone. The NFL equivalent of an own goal. 2. A defensive back who lines up in the middle of the field and provides cover for the cornerbacks on each flank.

Scramble – When the quarterback runs to avoid being sacked, often still looking for an open wide receiver at the same time.

Screen pass – A delayed passing play in which the defensive line is allowed to penetrate the backfield and the ball is thrown to a running back or receiver who has a wall of blockers in front of him made up of offensive linemen who have pulled out of position.

Scrimmage (line of) – The imaginary line running from sideline to sideline at the point where the ball is snapped. The line from which a play begins.

Secondary – The collective term for the cornerbacks and safeties assigned to cover an opposing teams receivers on passing plays.

Shotgun – An offensive formation in which the quarterback takes a long snap from the center while standing five to seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Signals – The number and worded codes called by the quarterback in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage ahead of each play. Signals are also called by the defence, usually by a linebacker.

Snap – The beginning of a play as the center passes the ball backwards through his legs to the quarterback. Longer snaps signal the beginning of field goal attempts or punts.

Snap count – The signal on which the ball will be snapped into play. All members of the offense know this signal and therefore know when to begin blocking or running downfield.

Spike – When a player slams the ball into the ground after scoring a touchdown.

Split – The distance a player is separated from another player. Usually used while referring to offensive linemen.

Spot – The placement of the ball by a referee after a play has ended or a penalty has been called. The place where the next play will begin from.

Spread – An offensive formation with just one or no running backs in the backfield. Usually sees the offense with four or five wide receivers on the field instead of the normal two, thus ‘spreading’ the defence by stretching players across the pitch.

Substitutions – Each team is allowed 11 men on the field at the time the ball is snapped. Unlimited substitutions are permitted throughout NFL games but players may only enter the field when the previous play has been whistled dead. Players leaving the field must be off the pitch by the time the new play has begun.

Strong side – The side of the offensive formation that features the tight end.

Super Bowl – The NFL’s championship game played between the AFC and NFC champions. The Super Bowl is held in a different American city each season and is played in the final week of January or the first week in February.

Sweep – A run around the end of the line.

Swing pass – A short pass thrown quickly to a running back on either side of the quarterback.


Tackle  – 1. To stop the ball carrier by forcing him to the ground. 2. The offensive linemen at each end of the line. Primary task is to protect the quarterback on passing plays by blocking the opponent’s pass-rushing defensive ends.

Tee – A small, hard rubber stand used to hold the ball in an upright position off the ground on kickoffs.

Tight end – Part receiver and part blocker. The tight end is positioned on the end of the offensive line. From there, he can act as an extra blocker on running plays or head downfield as a receiver in passing situations.

Time out – A legal stopping of the game at any time. Each team has three time outs per half and can use them to stop the clock whenever they desire. Officials can also call time outs to measure first down yardage or if a player is injured.

Toss – A pitch to the running back by the quarterback. A quick way to get the ball into the running back’s hands on running plays.

Touchback – When the ball is kicked or punted into an opponent’s end zone. The ball is whistled dead and the opposing team takes possession on its own 20-yard line.

Touchdown – The most valuable score in American football, worth six points. A touchdown is scored when a player takes the ball across the other team’s goal line or when he catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone. Despite the term ‘touchdown’ the player does not have to touch the ball down to score six points.

Training camp – Preseason training for all 32 NFL teams usually takes place in the summer, about two weeks before the first friendly warm-up games begin in August. Teams usually bunker down in a college facility and live and breathe American football for weeks on end, isolated from friends and family.

Turnover – The collective name for interceptions or fumbles that are recovered by the opposition. Any play where the offense turns the ball over to the defence.


Unnecessary roughness – A penalty called on any player who hits an opponent, shoves an opponent or tackles an opponent after the play has already been signalled as over by the official’s whistle.


Weakside – The side of the offensive formation that does not feature the tight end.

Wide Receiver – Usually two and sometimes three or four on the field at any one time. Wide receivers line up on either side of the offensive line, close to the sidelines away from other players. Wide receivers are usually among the quickest on the team and their job is to run downfield, find open spaces and catch passes thrown by the quarterback.


Yard line – The markings on the field used to determine yards gained and field position.


Zebras – The nickname for NFL officials, who wear black and white striped shirts.