American Football Rules Explained




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A Beginner’s Guide to the Rules of American Football

American football is one of the most popular sports in the world. The pinnacle of the NFL season, the Super Bowl, attracts over 100 million viewers in the United States alone, with an additional 40-50 million viewers tuning in from around the globe.

With the Super Bowl attracting a vast number of viewers and significant interest each year, it’s evident that American Football is an enjoyable and entertaining sport to watch. However, if you don’t understand the fundamental rules, watching an NFL game can be very confusing, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to interpret what’s going on.

With this issue in mind, we’ve created this guide to break down and explain the fundamental rules of American Football in a simple format. This way, you can follow along the next time it’s on TV and understand the rules & strategies if you are looking to have a go at the sport yourself.

How does American football work? 

The game of American football is played on a field that measures 100 yards in length and 53.3 yards in width (approximately 91m by 48.7m), with two teams consisting of 11 players each.

The primary objective of the game is to advance the ball into the opposing team’s ‘end zone’ to score a touchdown, which is worth 6 points. 

The team in possession of the ball gets 4 attempts to move the ball a total of 10 yards towards the opposing team’s end zone. If they succeed, they are granted another 4 attempts to move the ball an additional 10 yards.

Fundamental Rules & Principles Of American Football
The attacking (offensive team) tries to get the ball to the opponent’s end zone in order to score a touchdown worth 6 points
The attacking team has 4 attempts/plays (called “downs”) to move the ball a total of 10 yards towards the opponent’s end zone
The quarterback tries to move the ball forwards on each down, by passing/throwing the ball forwards to a receiver or handing the ball to a running back
Each down ends when the ball-carrier is tackled, when points are scored, or when the ball hits the ground or goes out of play

If the team with the ball fail to make 10 yards after the 4th down, possession of the ball is given to the opposing team. It is then the ‘opposing team’s’ turn to attack – attempting to make 10 yards of distance within 4 downs.

Although each team has only 11 players on the field at one time, there are actually 53 players in each NFL American Football team or “roster”, with 48 ready to play on the day. 

During a typical NFL game, 35-40 players from each team will typically get onto the field of play. 

When a team has possession of the ball, they will field the 11 players from their ‘offensive team’, and when they lose possession or possession is given to the opposing team, they will field a completely different 11 players from the ‘defensive team’. There is also a “special team” of players who have very specific roles and usually take the field during kick offs and punts. 

What are “downs” in American Football?

An important concept when learning the rules and principles of American Football are “downs”.  As explained above, the offensive/attacking team has 4 chances to move the ball forwards 10 yards – this is why the 10 yard lines are so clearly marked on an American Football Field.

Each chance or attempt to gain 10 yards is called a “down”. The distance gained on each down accumulates. For example, if 4 yards is gained on the first down, then the team will only have to gain 6 yards within the next 3 downs; or possession will be given to the opposing team.

If you are watching American Football on the TV, you may see “First and 10” on the corner of your screen during the first down. This means that it is the first down, and the offensive/attacking team needs to gain 10 yards. If, as in the example above, the team gains 4 yards on the first down, then “2nd and 6” might appear on your TV screen – meaning it’s the second down and the team has 6 yards to gain.

If the team manages to advance 10 yards within the 4 downs, then the count resets and they are awarded another 4 downs.  If they fail to make the 10 yards however, the defending team will be given possession of the ball and it’s their turn to “play offense” as they try and gain ground towards the opposition’s end zone. 

A strategic decision has to be made when a team reaches the 4th down. The team must decide whether or not to punt the ball downfield – to make the opposition start with the ball further away from the end zone, to attempt a field goal or to make a final attempt to complete and gain a total of 10 yards.


In American Football, points can be scored in the following ways:

A touchdown is the main objective of the game and occurs when a player carries the ball into, or catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone. 

After a touchdown is scored, the scoring team can attempt to kick the ball between the uprights of the opponent’s goal posts for an extra point. This is called a PAT. 

After scoring a touchdown, the scoring team can choose to attempt a 2-point conversion rather than a kick/PAT. To score a 2-point conversion, the scoring team must carry or pass the ball into the opponent’s End Zone, with a single play that begins from the 2-yard line.

A defensive conversion occurs when the attacking team attempts a PAT or a 2-point-conversion, and the defending team steals possession of the ball and runs it back to the opposing team’s end zone. 

A field goal is scored by kicking the ball between the opposing team’s goal post uprights above the crossbar. A field goal is often attempted when the ball is within the kicker’s range but time is running out to score a touchdown.  Similar to a drop goal in rugby, field goals can be scored by executing a drop-kick, but this is rare in the NFL and most field goals are scored with place kicks – whereby the ball is passed back to “the holder” who holds the ball in place for the kicker to deliver the kick over the goal posts’ uprights.

A “safety” most commonly occurs when an offensive/attacking player is tackled in their own end zone. For example, if a player has possession of the ball and runs back into their own end zone to make space for a throw/pass and gets tackled, the opposing team will be awarded 2 points. A safety can also be awarded if a player commits a foul or fumbles the ball in his or her own end zone. 

As you can see from all the scoring methods shown above, compared to Association Football, point scoring in American Football is rather complicated. For this reason we’ve put together the table below to give a simple and easy to interpret overview of the “scores” in American Football:

Point Scoring in American Football
Name of ScoreNumber of PointsMethod/Instance of Score
Touchdown (TD)6When a player holds the ball in the opponent’s end zone.
Point After Touchdown (PAT) – Kick1Immediately following a touchdown, by kicking the ball through the goal’s uprights.
2-Point Conversion2Immediately following a touchdown, by taking the ball into the end zone again, either by run or pass.
Defensive Conversion2If the attacking team fails a PAT or 2-Point Conversion, the defending team can steal possession of the ball and run it to the opposing team’s end zone
Field Goal (FG)3By kicking the ball through the uprights during a play from scrimmage.
Safety2When the offense commits a foul, fumbles the ball or is tackled in their own end zone.

What are scoring plays after a touchdown in American Football?

After a touchdown has been scored, the offensive team has what’s called a scoring play or a “try”. Not to be confused with rugby, a try in American Football refers to the scoring team choosing to attempt a PAT worth 1 point or a 2-point conversion.


How long is a game of American football? 

A standard game of American Football, lasts a total of 60 minutes in terms of actual gameplay. However because of all the stoppages, including timeouts, injuries, commercial breaks and play-reviews, the average NFL game lasts over 3 hours!

Each game is split into 4 quarters, each lasting 15 minutes each. Between the first and the third quarters, there is a break of around 2 minutes as the teams switch sides of the field. 

Halftime occurs between the second and third quarters and the break lasts for 12 minutes in the NFL. The halftime break is often longer for special events and games like the Super Bowl.

How Does Overtime Work in American Football?

Whilst American Football games can end in a draw, it’s quite rare for this to happen. In the NFL for example, during the “regular season” if the game is a tie at the end of the fourth quarter, 10 minutes of overtime will be played.

American Football Overtime Rules:

What is a timeout in American Football?

A timeout is a pause in the game that can be called by a coach or a player. A timeout can be used strategically for a number of purposes – for example to discuss tactics, to allow the team a brief rest or to disrupt the momentum of the opposing team. 

In the NFL timeouts last for 1 minute and 50 seconds, although in practice this can vary according to commercial breaks. 

If you are interested in the NFL and are looking to try the sport, or require equipment for an established team, then be sure to check out our range of American Football equipment. The selection of FORZA equipment includes game & practice balls, goal posts, side-line makers, tackle shields, tackle pads and a wide range of specialised training equipment including Quarterback Target Nets. If you are looking to get in shape like an American Footballer, you may also be interested in our gym & fitness equipment

 By: Andrew Griffiths

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