American Football Positions

The following diagram shows you football positions in Big Picture mode.

American football positions

For the moment, forget about the individual labels on our football positions. Just notice that the players on the field are broken up into two teams of eleven men each, the offense (who are trying to move the football down the field into the end zone) and the defense, who are trying to stop them.

Between them, as you can see, is the line of scrimmage. Although indeed there are lines drawn across the football field, the line of scrimmage is not one of them. The line of scrimmage is, in fact, an imaginary line that is used to indicate where each play will begin, with the offensive football positions set on one side of the line, and the defensive football positions set on the other. All lined up and ready to rumble!

Except when the play is begun by kicking the ball to the opposition (at the beginning of the game, after the halftime break, after points have been scored, and when the offense has failed to make the required ten yard minimum in their series of downs). Then they have a longer way to run before the . . . errr . . . rumbling can begin.

Okay, then. The first breakdown of football positions is into the broad categories of offensive team versus defensive team.

Within these two broad categories of football positions, there are, for both offense and defense, two more broad categories: line and backfield.

For the team on offense (i.e., the team with the ball), the responsibility of the linemen is to protect the backs so that they can get free to move the ball down the field.

The 'head back,' by the way, is the quarterback. He's sort of the general of the offense. He 'calls plays,' which means he yells out a code at the beginning of each play that tells the rest of the team what the game plan is, and what their individual assignments will be.

The responsibility of the backs is to move the ball forward either by running with it, or 'getting open,' i.e., free from the defense, so that they can catch the ball if it is thrown to them (usually by the quarterback).

Since only one player can have the ball at a time, the backs without the ball can also help protect the back with the ball, or they can be used as decoys to confuse the defense, a common ploy in American football.

Of course, the defense has the opposite assignment, i.e., they are trying to break through the offensive line and stop the backs from moving the ball.

The defensive backs are pretty much the 'opposite number' of the offensive backs, and may try to stop them by being assigned one man to 'cover' (i.e., control or stop), or by setting up zones of coverage so that the assignment passes from one defensive back to another as the offensive back moves down the field.

Now, you probably noticed that all the little players in our diagram have been labeled. But did you notice that there are a few labels left laying around (like 'Nickel Back' and 'Defensive Tackle') that haven't been stuck on any of the players?

The reason for this is that sometimes football positions are given names unique to the specific formation being used.

Formations, for future reference, are designed plays, rather like choreography in the dance world, in which positions are moved around in an attempt to gain strategic advantage.

And yes: we'll get to that. But we said we'd give you the basics first, and getting into plays and formations now would be like trying to master a souffle before you learn how to boil an egg.

Bu don't worry. You can watch a whole game without knowing if someone's a nickel back. So for now, stay with learning to recognize offense, defense, line and backfield. Unless and until you're hankering to coach the Dallas Cowboys, that's really all you need to know about football positions.

And remember: understanding the game is just a stepping stone. You'll see. Jumping from football positions to football for lovers is really gonna be a breeze!

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