Understanding the Basic Rules of American Football

By Shannon Allen , last updated December 7, 2011

Anyone unfamiliar with the American version of football may assume the sport focuses mainly on hard-hitting tackles and diving catches for the football. While these actions definitely add some serious excitement, there are rules that must be followed and strategies that must be applied to achieve victory and keep players safe. The following article provides a better understanding of the basic rules of American football for those who may not be familiar with the sport.

The Object of the Game

American football is played by two opposing teams that are ultimately playing to get the football into the other teams scoring zone. The two scoring zones are called "end zones," and are located at each end of the field. Each team has 11 players on the field at once and takes turns moving the ball down the field (offense) or trying to stop the other team from moving down the field (defense).

The team playing offense has four tries to move the football ten yards down the field. Each attempt is called a "down." If the offense is successful, the downs will reset and they will have another four attempts to move the ball another 10 yards. This process continues until the offense gets the ball into its opponent's end zone or the defense prevents the offense from moving the ball 10 yards in four downs. Either way, at this point in the game the teams switch positions and now the defense has an opportunity to try and move the ball down the field while the offense moves to the defensive position.

There are two main methods for moving the football down the field. Running the ball occurs when a player runs down the field with the ball until he is tackled. The other common way to move the football is by throwing. If the ball is thrown and not caught by another player on the offense, the offense receives no yards for that down. If the ball is thrown but caught by a player on the opposing team, the offense must surrender the ball to the defense and begin playing defense. It is also very common during a football game for the offense to punt, or kick, the football toward the other team's end zone on a fourth down if they are not close to achieving the 10 yards needed for a first down.

How to Score

Like many sports, the team to score the most points by the end of the game wins. Two of the main ways to score are touchdowns and field goals. A touchdown is scored when the ball crosses into the opponent's end zone and is worth six points. After the touchdown, the offense attempts to kick the ball between the opponent's goal posts to add another point to the score. The other main way to get points occurs when the offense kicks the football between their opponents goal post while they are in possession of the ball. This is called a field goal and is worth three points.


A football game consists of two 30-minute halves which are each broken down into two 15-minute quarters. The teams get a brief break between quarters and a 20-minute break at halftime.

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