The Rules of American Football

American football can be a very fun sport to play and watch when you understand all the rules. Plus, it plays a huge role in American culture, especially when football season and the Super Bowl comes around, so it’s a great idea to learn about it during your time abroad. Maybe you’ll even join in on the fun and go to your school’s or state’s football games!

Game objective

The objective of the game is to move the football from one end of the field to the opposite end by running with the ball until tackled or passing the ball to a teammate downfield, in order to score points. Getting the ball to the opposite end is called a touchdown, and one touchdown equates to six points. The team with the highest score in the end wins the game. 


There are two teams on the field at all times, and each team has 11 players who play specifically assigned positions. These teams switch between playing offensive and defensive throughout the game. There are different positions in offensive and defensive plays—here are the positions, where they play, and what they do:

Football positions on the field

Gear and equipment

Football players must wear a protective helmet, mouth guards, jersey with their last name and number, shoulder pads, thigh pads, knee pads, pants, socks, and cleats. Some of them also wear gloves. For equipment, you just need a football to play. 


An American football field is 120 yards long and around 60 yards wide. The lines within the field are 10 yard intervals, and they’re used to see how far each team is from the end zone. At the end of each side of the field, behind the end zone, is a tall Y-shaped metal structure called goal posts, which is where field goal attempts are made as the kicker has to try to kick the ball through the goal in order to gain their team more points. 

The game

An average professional game is around three hours long. The game consists of four 15 minute quarters. Although the actual playtime is only one hour long, the game takes longer due to half-time intervals, breaks, and time-outs.

When the game starts, the offensive team has four “downs” or tries to move the ball forward by at least 10 yards. If they do get past at least 10 yards within the four downs, the count resets and the team gets another set of four downs to get through at least 10 more yards. This will continue until the offensive team either makes it down to the end zone to score a touchdown or loses possession of the ball to the defensive team. If they do lose the ball, the teams switch positions, meaning that the offensive team becomes defensive and vice versa. 

Tackle rules

For safety reasons, players are only allowed to make contact below the shoulders and above the knees while tackling. However, players are allowed to be thrown to the ground as long as it does not seem reckless or lead to possible injuries.


There are multiple ways to earn points in American football, including a touchdown, Try, field goal, and Safety. A touchdown (six points) is scored when the ball makes its way into the opponent’s end zone while in the hands of a runner. After a touchdown occurs, either team is given an opportunity, a Try, to score one to two additional points during a scrimmage down. Either team can earn one point by kicking the ball through the goal post or two points by taking the ball to the end zone again. If the offensive team is still too far from the end zone during the fourth down, the offensive team can attempt a field goal kick for three points. Another way to score is through a Safety (two points), which is when the defensive team tackles a member of the offensive team with the ball in their own end zone.

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