American Football Positions Explained: A Guide to Offense and Defense

Another football season is upon us, which means college football and NFL fans will be spending hours in front of the TV every week watching their favorite teams play. But there are new fans who get into the sport every season, and they may not be up to speed on everything that goes on in games. For those new to the game, or fans who may want a refresher of the different football positions and roles, here’s a primer to who is who on the field, so you can better understand the games you watch and the NFL positions.

What are the 11 positions in football?

The quarterback is one of the many NFL football positions. Nick Foles throws a pass against the Cowboys.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles (9) passes against the Dallas Cowboys in the second quarter after replacing Michael Vick, who suffered a concussion at Lincoln Financial Field.| Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Each NFL team has 11 players on the field for each play, with each player at a specific position. Each team has three different parts to it that play in different situations. The offense is on the field for the team that has the ball and is trying to score a touchdown. The defense is the team trying to stop the opposing offense from scoring. The special teams is made up primarily of the kicking game and is on the field for field goal attempts, punts, and kickoffs.

Offensive football positions

For many football fans, offense is more important than defense because that’s when the majority of the scoring happens. Offensive stars are generally the most well-known players on their teams and make the most money. American Football Database describes the positions on the field. The quarterback is the key piece of the offense. As the player who passes the ball, he is generally the signal caller who relays the chosen play to his teammates. He is protected by the offensive line, whose main job is to block the defenders to give the quarterback time to pass.

The offensive line includes the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback or another player; he is the only player to touch the ball on every offensive play. The line also includes offensive guards, who line up next to the center, and tackles, who line up on the outside of the line.

The quarterback is considered a skill position, a grouping that also includes wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks. All of those players are tasked with helping to block when they’re not involved in the play. Receivers and tight ends are mainly involved in the passing game, catching passes from the quarterbacks. The backs also catch passes at times, but their main role is running the ball on the ground.

Fullbacks are becoming less common in the NFL — but when a team uses one, he is typically used as a power runner when a team needs short yardage. The offensive coordinator leads the offense and, working with the head coach, determines the team’s offensive strategy and calls plays during games.

Defensive football positions

The defense isn’t as “sexy” as the offense, but keeping the other team from scoring is an important job. Like on offense, there’s a defensive line that is made up of defensive ends and defensive tackles, also known as guards. The line’s job is to rush the passer or quickly stop the runner on rushing plays.

The nose guard lines up opposite the center and is charged with stopping runs up the middle or helping double team opposing players. The linebacker sets up behind the line and is sort of a jack-of-all-trades on defense. He will rush the passer, defend receivers, or stop the runner depending on the defensive play.

There are also cornerbacks and safeties, who are collectively the secondary. The secondary sets up further down the field, with the safeties the furthest away from the play. The cornerbacks cover the receivers and, if they can, try to intercept passes for turnovers. The safeties are the defense’s last line of defense, and they usually help the cornerbacks cover receivers on deep pass plays.

Defensive back isn’t a specific position and can be any defender not on the line. Like with the offense, the defense is led by the defensive coordinator, who calls the plays on that side of the ball.

Special teams

The third unit on an NFL squad is special teams. The long snapper is a specialized center who snaps the ball directly to the holder or punter. The holder, who is typically a backup quarterback or punter, puts the ball on the ground and holds it for the kicker on a kickoff or field goal attempt. The punter is responsible for punting the ball back to the other team when his offense fails to score on a drive.

An upback is a blocking back who sets up behind the line of scrimmage on punts to give extra protection to the punter. The gunner quickly runs down the field on kickoffs and punts to try to tackle the ball carrier, who is a punt returner on a punt or a kick returner on a kickoff. The wedge buster is responsible for sprinting down the middle of the field on kickoffs, trying to prevent the returner from getting an open lane through which to run.

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