A geek’s guide to American Football

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Without a doubt, one of the biggest sports in North America is American Football. Although the game is played globally, the American professional leagues like the NFL attract the world's top players. The pinnacle of American Football is the season-ending Super Bowl that is watched and betted on by millions in the US and around the world.

The aim of American football

American Football is played on a four-sided ground with goalposts at either end. The two opposing teams consist of eleven players and are known as the Defence and the Offence.

The offensive team is the side with control of the ovoid ball (the name of the oval shaped ball, similar to that used in Rugby); attempts to move the ball downfield by either passing or running. The defence is tasked with stopping the ball in play and take control, and then proceed to move offensively.

The primary objective of the sport then is to score the most number of goals by moving forward and scoring either a touchdown or kicking the ball through the opposition goalposts. The side with more points at the matches end wins the contest.

Simple so far?

Team positions in American football

American football teams are made up of 45 players, although only eleven will be on the field at any one time. Each player is a specialist in specific on-field responsibilities, and players range in speed, size and kicking and throwing abilities.

The offence

When a team is attacking, they are known as the offence, and the offensive players look to move the ball forward and score touchdowns.

The key man to offensive strategy is called the quarterback.

Navy Midshipmen quarterback ZACH ABEY (9) looks to pass during the American Athletic Conference football game Navy Midshipmen quarterback ZACH ABEY (9) looks to pass during the American Athletic Conference football game

On the quarterback's signal, the centre player snaps the ball back between his legs to the quarterback, who will then decide either to pass downfield to one of his teammates, run with the ball himself, or hand the ball to a running back.

Quarterback plays seem chaotic yet is typically rehearsed to maximise their teams’ potential goal-scoring potential. Alternatively, if the game plan is evolving, the quarterback will improvise with alternative tactics and plays.

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The defence

The defence's role is to stop the offensive team from scoring by hard tackling the ball-carrier or intercepting passes or causing attacking players to fumble with the ball and drop it for them to scoop up.

SMU receiver COURTLAND SUTTON (16) tries to break a tackle after a completion against Memphis. SMU receiver COURTLAND SUTTON (16) tries to break a tackle after a completion against Memphis.

A team's defensive players are made up of massive, powerful players stopping the offence's faster and more athletic players running with the ball or intercepting the quarterbacks passes. The defence does this by targeting the quarterback before he has an opportunity to throw the ball.

Special teams

These players are utilised for plays that involve kicking or punting the ball. They play a small but critical role and come onto the field when teams want to punt the ball down forth or kick at goal for additional points.

Special teams are also responsible for blocking the opposing team's kicks and punts, plus attempting to return them as far away as possible in the opposite direction.

The role of downs in American football

This is where American football can become confusing, yet downs are the most fundamental part of the sport.

The offence must move the ball forward in parts of at least 10 yards, which is why the field has yardage markings.

Kansas State fullback Winston Dimel (38) scores a first-quarter touchdown on a 10-yard run against Oklahoma State Kansas State fullback Winston Dimel (38) scores a first-quarter touchdown on a 10-yard run against Oklahoma State

The offence has four chances (or 'downs') to gain those 10 yards. Once the first down is earned, then the offence has another four opportunities to advance another 10 yards.

However, if the offence fails to complete 10 yards in four chances, then they lose possession, with the ball usually kicked or punted to the defence on the fourth down.

Whilst most of the points are scored near the defence's end zone, touchdowns can be scored from anywhere on the field, and on any down.

Plays in American football

Plays are complicated and chaotic movements involving all eleven players, and you'll hear shouts of numbers signifying which play the quarterback wishes to execute.

Once again it is the quarterback who decides, as he is the attacking lynchpin of the team, and he has 30 seconds to play the ball or attempt to kick a field goal.

The defence also has defensive plays, as they are looking to react to an offensive play mastered by the offence's quarterback.

Defensive lineman Myles Garrett (15) enters the field prior to the Texas Bowl NCAA football game Defensive lineman Myles Garrett (15) enters the field prior to the Texas Bowl NCAA football game

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Scoring in American football

Whoever has the most points in American football will win the game. Various plays lead to different points being scored:

A touchdown awards six points are to a team. Touchdowns are scored by either carrying the ball to the defence's end zone or receiving the ball thrown to a player who catches it in the end zone. Once a touchdown has been scored, the offence has another opportunity to score an additional one point if they kick the ball upright between the goalposts.

New Orleans Saints' Lance Moore celebrates his touchdown in the first half New Orleans Saints' Lance Moore celebrates his touchdown in the first half

Field goals can be scored from anywhere on the pitch at any time; typically, once the offence has reached the final down. A successful kick will award the offence three points.

Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott (#4) kicks a field goal during the first quarter of Super Bowl LII Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliott (#4) kicks a field goal during the first quarter of Super Bowl LII

A safety is where the defence manages to tackle and offence player in their end zone, if they successfully do this, they will receive two points.

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is often regarded as the most significant sporting event in the US calendar. Although not an official US holiday more food and drink are consumed on this day than all other US holidays except Thanksgiving.

Throughout the NFL season, 32 teams compete divided into two conferences of 16, called the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). These conferences are in turn split into eight smaller divisions with four teams each.

The division champions will qualify automatically for the post-season playoffs, along with two wildcard teams from each conference (the best of the rest on performance) so twelve teams in total.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles (#9) drops back to pass during the first quarter at Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles Eagles quarterback Nick Foles (#9) drops back to pass during the first quarter at Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles

These twelve teams then face each in a seeded order yet remain in their AFC and NFC groupings before following a traditional knockout system.

The two sides that progress through the Conference Championships - become either the AFC champion and NFC champion. A format similar to what happens in baseball for the World Series.

It is these two teams (the AFC and NFC champions) that compete for the prestigious Vince Lombardi Trophy and the right to be claimed as the top American football team in the US. (In reality, considering the USA’s dominance of the sport, the world).

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy

With this geek’s guide to American football, you should have enough to get started watching and betting on your first football match. There is much more to understand in this very chaotic but highly-organised game; however, if you master these basics, you’ll be able to follow this tactical game with its rapidly growing global popularity.

Words: David Bailey-Lauring

Images: PA

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