In American football sport, there are two teams playing against each other at once with different football positions. This means that there may be more than ten teams in a competition, but only two compete on the field at once. The decision as to what teams would compete is up to the governing bodies. Each team boasts of 11 players on the field at one time. Each player has a specific role which he takes on and is expected to play throughout the duration of the game. This role is called ‘position’.
According to American football rules, the modern rule, substitutions are allowed for as many times as possible. For this reason, platoons of player have been developed. The platoons are: the offense, the defense, and the special teams. Each platoon has further divisions in which each player is placed in. The offense team is the team with the ball trying to score a goal point. Their aim is to move the ball to their opponents’ end zone in order to score points; the defense team is the team trying to prevent the opposing team from scoring and, if successful, takes the ball from them; the special teams play in kicking situations.
In every standard football competition, there are strict rules that the offense must have at least seven (7) players on the line of scrimmage and not a one more than four players behind the line of scrimmage. Not all the players are eligible hold or handle the ball during normal play. The backs and two players at the end of the line are the only players eligible to handle the ball when a normal game play is being run. The remaining players or interior linemen are not eligible to catch forward passes hence they are used as blockers. Despite the strict rules, however, the coaches have become creative in developing a wide range of formations on the offensive team. These formations are set such that they take utmost advantage of the skills of the different players and their game situations.
Let’s look at them one after the other, including the further divisions in which they are divided into.
The defense team is that team that starts their play right from the scrimmage. They are not in possession of the ball so their main objective is to either take over possession of the ball or to prevent the other team from scoring. The defense team is able to succeed in this by forcing the hand of the offense team such that they turn the ball over. This they can do by either preventing them from achieving a first down and, therefore, they are forced to punt. Or, they make the offense to fumble or throw an interception or, on very rare occasions, make them turnover on downs. The defensive positions include:
- Defensive Line: much like the offensive counterparts only that they are defenders. The rushers (used to classify defensive linemen) arrange themselves on the scrimmage line directly, they make sure they are very close to the ball. Usually, defensive linemen have their hands on the ground in a stance, three or four point, before they can snap the ball. Their pre-snap stance from the linebacker, whose stance is two-point, is distinguished by this. Under the defensive line, we have:
a. Defensive Ends: there are two of them and they play next to the defensive tackle which is at the edges of the defensive line. Their major role is to attack the player passing the ball or to hinder the offense player from getting to the outer edges of the scrimmage line or, as commonly referred to, the containment. Whichever one of the two players is faster is usually situated at the right hand side of the defensive line so that he can function well since a right-handed quarterback’s blind side is the right side of the line.
b. Defensive Tackles: these ones are also referred to as defensive guards. Their play point is right at the center of the defensive line. Their major role is to hurry up the player passing the ball and also to stop plays in motion which are directed to the middle line of the scrimmage. Defensive tacklers who are situated more interiorly than others sometimes line up directly from the ball thereby coming almost nose-to-nose with the offense’s center. These tacklers are referred to as nose tacklers, nose guard, or middle guard. Majority of teams have defensive sets of one or two tackles. Tackling is more easily done and more effective when there is a second defense tackler.
- Linebackers: Players positioned as linebackers play, as the name implies, behind the defensive line. Their functions and duties vary depending on the situation they find themselves in. The duties range from passing, protecting receivers, or defense against runs.
a. Middle Linebackers: they are also referred to as inside linebackers sometimes especially in defense of 3-4. They are also known as the ‘mike’ linebacker, and quarterback of the defense because of their being frequently the primary defense play callers saddled with the responsibility of possessing the ability of responding to numerous situations that may arise on the field. A player playing the middle linebacker role is expected to have the ability to stop running backs who manage to get beyond the defensive line. Also, they must be able to cover passes made over the middle and also hurry the quarterback on blitz plays.
b. Outside Linebackers: these section of linebackers has different names given to them and each name tallies with the role they are playing and depends on the mentality of the team for which they are playing. Their roles are classed as: strongside linebacker (SLB) or weakside linebacker (WLB). The strong side linebacker would line up on the same side on which the offensive tight end lined up and are given the responsibility of covering the tight end and/or running back during and on pass plays. On the other hand, the weak side linebacker usually lines up on the side of the offensive line that does not have a tight end. The weakside linebacker is used to rush blitz the quarterback and also to cover a player running back during a pass play.
- Cornerbacks: the cornerback is a section of the defensive back used to attempt to prevent passes that would have been successful had they been allowed. The prevention can be done either by catching the pass themselves or they cause the ball to fall away from the receiver’s hand. When it comes to rushing, they prevent the runner either by causing them to go back to the middle of the pitch to face tackling, or they the cornerbacks themselves do the tackling, or they force the opposing team to go out of bounds.
- Nickelbacks: nickelback and dimeback players are formed when, in some teams, the defense removes a linebacker and brings in an extra pass coverage through making of more defensive backs. The formation is done with five defense backs also referred to as a nickel formation; the extra defensive back, i.e. the defensive back, if termed the ‘nickleback’. The name was formed after the US five-cent piece, the nickel coin. There is a sixth defensive back formed and such defensive back is called a dime back and its formation is called a ‘dime package’. On rare occasions, teams employ a seventh or even an eighth defensive backs.
- Safeties: the safeties are situated on the last line of the defense backs and they are the furthest away from the line of scrimmage. They usually help players on the corners with a deep-pass coverage. There are two varieties: the strong safety (SS) and the free safety (FS). The strong safety is naturally and usually the stronger and larger of the two. He is an extra source of protection for the team used to stop run plays by standing very close to the line of scrimmage. They are usually found on the tight end side of the pitch. The free safety, on the other hand, is the smaller but faster of both safeties. They are usually the deepest players on the defense backs and they function in providing further help during long pass plays.
In any standard football team, there is an offensive unit which consists of the offensive line, offensive backfield which includes the running backs and quarterback, and also the tight ends and wide receivers. They are overseen and led by the offensive coordinator who works with the head coach to determine what calls and strategy the offense team would use while the game is on. When this team is on the field and they are in control of the ball, they usually try to move the ball down the field thereby scoring a touchdown or a kick-a-field goal. This they do either by a runner carrying the ball a receiver being passed the ball by the quarterback.
- Quarterback: the quarterback player is that player responsible for receiving the ball from the center from which point he starts the play. Basically, what they do is, they receive the play from coaches on the sideline and then they send the play to the other players in the offensive team located in the huddle. It is the most important position on the offensive team. The quarterback, sometimes, may have to make some changes in how the game is being played at the line of scrimmage. His decision will be based on the defensive team’s alignment. When the game begins, the quarterback may be lined up either directly in contact with the center receiving the ball through a hand-to-hand pass (in which case they are said to be ‘under center’) or, they lined up a few distance behind the center in a shotgun formation or, they can be in between both options in a pistol formation. Once he receives the ball, he either advances the ball, run it, or hand it over to another eligible player to run with the ball, or he makes a forward pass to a player that is downfield.
- Running Backs: these are players lined up right behind the offensive line. They are lined up in a position as to receive the ball from the quarterback and make a rushing play. Anyone of the running backs, usually three, can be used for the play. When the backfield is empty, no running back is used. Running backs come in varieties depending on where their lineup is formed and what role they are performing. The halfback is the team’s main ball carrier during rush players; they may catch the ball when every other receiver on the team is covered. The fullback is stronger and larger than the tailback so, for their size, they act as blockers; they may also be used to catch passes or rush play like the tailback. Fullbacks line up closer to the line of the scrimmage, more than the tailbacks who also are close to the scrimmage line, thereby blocking on their behalf. The wingback is a player running back who lines up behind the line of scrimmage and then outside the tackle; they are usually found in flexbone formation. The H-back is a similar position.
- Wide Receivers: these players are specialists at catching passes. Their major role is to run pass routes so they can get open passes. Occasionally, they are called on to act as blockers. Wide receivers line up near sidelines at the beginning of a game play of football. Like running backs, they are also of different varieties and their variety depends on where they line up. The split end is a wide receiver directly on the line of scrimmage; he is counted among the required players (7 of them) on the line of the scrimmage. A flanker is the term used for a wide receiver who lines up behind the line thereby being counted as one of the four backs. Lastly, the slot receiver is that wide receiver lining up in between the offensive line and the outermost wide receiver; he is called such because he is said to be in the slot at that point.
- Tight Ends: the tight ends play both directly next to, and on either sides of the tackles. They are seen as hybrid players i.e. in between an offensive lineman and a wide receiver. Due to the fact that they play next to the offensive linemen, they are usually used as blockers on running plays. They are eligible receivers also and so they also catch passes. They are also referred to as the H-back – a tight end lining up right behind the line of scrimmage. They are counted as one of the four backs on the offensive team although their role is quite similar to that of other tight ends.
- Offensive Line: the offensive line is usually consisted of five major players namely: the center, two guards, and two tackles. the offensive or interior line is majorly given the role of blocking, protect the quarterback from being rushed by the defensive players, and to give the quarterback ample time to make successful forward progress. The rule is that the offensive line must be lined up behind the line of the scrimmage with one hand on the ground before the ball is snapped. Should it happen that a player moves slightly, whether accidentally or intentionally, the offside penalty can be called. When normal plays are on, the offensive linemen don’t touch the ball after being snapped unless the ball carrier fumbles with it, a player an offensive lineman takes another position on the field, or when a pass is deflected.
- Center: the job of this position starts with the snap of the football sent from the center to the quarterback. Player starts playing from scrimmage by snapping the ball to the quarterback. They usually play in center of the offensive line, as the name implies, although some teams tend to employ an unbalanced line whenever the center is offset to one side. Like all the other offensive linemen, the center also blocks players in the defensive team. They also function in calling out blocking assignments and making last second alterations taking into consideration the alignment of the defense team.
- Guards: these are the offensive guards. There are usually two of them; they line up directly on either side of the center. Like all other offensive linemen, they function in blocking both passing and running plays. Although, on some plays, offensive guards would rather pull rather than block. Pulling involves one guard coming out of his position in line in order to block for a ball carrier on inside runs called traps, outside runs called sweeps, and passing plays called screens. They are called ‘pulling guard’ when such happens.
- Offensive Tackles: there are two tacklers in every team and they play outside of the offensive guards. Their primary function is to block players both on running and passing plays. The close line play is the name used for that area where one tackle is made to another. For these players, blocks from behind which are prohibited elsewhere on the field are allowed in the close line play. The left tackle protects the right-handed quarterback from being hit from his blind side. The left tackle is seen as the most skilled player on the offensive line. The tackle, like a guard, may see the need to pull on a running play where there is a tight end standing on their side. The offensive tackles generally are of taller and longer build that the interior offensive line men because of the need to separate defensive linemen during pass blocking situations. They also known to be players who are quick footwork skills since they have to engage against rushing defense ends often.
These teams are special units on the field during kicking plays. Although there are many players who on the defensive and offensive team who also seem to play similar roles as the special teams, yet there are specialist roles which are for the kickers alone. The special teams are referred to as the kicking unit.
- the kicking unit
a. kicker: the kicker is also referred to as the placekicker and they are employed to handle kickoffs, field goals, and extra points. All three instances require the skill of a kicker who will kick the ball off the ground which they may do either from the hands of the holder or off a tree. In some teams, two kickers are chosen where one kicks for extra points and field goals while the other one makes kickoffs. In majority, however, only one single kicker is used to perform both duties.
b. holder: a holder is usually situated some 7 to 8 yards from the line of scrimmage. Their role is to hold the ball for placekickers to kick. The holder is usually used as a backup for the quarterback or the punter because they are known to have good hands which enable them to feel the ball. They also have better experience with taking snaps from the long snapper during plays that are done from the scrimmage. Occasionally, a holder may be used on kickoffs if the field or weather conditions are not good enough, causing the ball to fall off the tree repeatedly.
c. long snapper: a holder or long snapper is a specialized center saddled with a major role of snapping the ball to the holder or punter. They are usually distinctly separate from the regular centers because the ball usually has to be snapped a longer distance back during kicking plays.
d. kick returner and punt returner: the returners function in catching kicked balls whether the balls were kicked during kickoffs or on punts and then running back with the ball. They are known to be one of the fastest players on any team. One player may be used by their teams for returning a kick or returning a punt or, in other cases, there may be different players to serve each function separately. Returners generally play wide receivers and cornerbacks. However, due to a high chances of occurrence of injuries during kick returns, majority of teams on the professional level will rather not use their very best players as returners.
e. punter: the punter is that player who punts the ball after receiving the snap. Punters usually line up some 15 yards behind the scrimmage line. The line may be shorter in cases where the punter may end up on or behind the line. Upon receiving the snap, the punter drops the ball and kicks it from air. They usually do this only on the fourth down and they do it to cause the defensive to lose possession of the ball as far down the field as possible.
f. gunner: gunners are usually players who are quick and strong. They are players on kickoffs and punts who are specialists when it comes to running down the field very quickly in order to tackle the returner bringing back the ball. The gunners typically line up close to the sidelines where there are not many blockers so that they can get to the downfield as quickly as possible.
g. jammer: jammers are gunner retarders. Their main duty on the field is to slow down gunners during points and kickoffs so that the players returning the ball downfield have more time to do so.
h. upback: the upback is the blocking back of the team. They line up about 1 to 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage in situations that involve punting. As a result of the positioning of the punters so far back on the line of scrimmage, the back more often makes the line calls and snap calls to be received by the punter. The primary role of the upback is to act as the last line of defense for the player responsible for punting the ball. Occasionally, upbacks may have to receive the snap instead of the punter. These occasions are fake punts and the upback may either run with it or throw it although it is normally thrown in most cases.
i. kickoff specialist: the kickoff specialists, as their name implies, are players who specialize in kickoffs. They are capable of making kickoffs for their team. They are used exclusively during kickoffs. Teams employ these kickoff specialists if they feel that their kicker or their punter is not good enough to perform the kickoff. As a result of the specialty and the very limited number of active roster sports, professional kickoff specialists are hard to come by.
The decision of which player plays which position lies ultimately at the mercy’s of the team’s coach’s discretion. A good coach would know the strengths and weaknesses of his players and so will give them football positions he is sure they can perform in very well. Players who are put in a position where they do not fit it will cause the team to lose very many goal points.