Many people new to the game of football ask me what various terms mean when they see or hear a game. So, with that in mind, here are some of the more common football terms that are used in the game, to help people of all levels to understand and appreciate the game more. You will also find some slang terms that you might hear in the course of football talk. Thanks to J Leahy of the Hockomock League.
TERM AND DEFINITION
|Audible||A situation whereby the quarterback changes the initially called play at the
line of scrimmage by relaying the new play in coded signals. This happens
when the quarterback does not like the defense he sees. Quarterbacks can
either call an audible or take a timeout when this happens.
|Backfield||The area behind the quarterback where the running backs line up.
|Back Judge||An official who checks for too many players on the defensive team and
watches the movement of the receivers on his side of the field. This is the
official who monitors pass interference penalties and also rules on whether
or not catches are legal.
|Barn Burner||A wild, exciting game (usually high scoring) in which the outcome is not decided until the final gun.|
|Blitz||A defensive maneuver which is used to put pressure on the quarterback.
Blitzes are utilized by linebackers or secondary players in an effort to
sack the quarterback.
|Block||A term which refers to the act of impeding or stopping the forward progress
of another player by the use of one's body.
|Blown Coverage||When a defensive player misses an assignment and allows a large gain by the
|Bomb||An extremely long pass usually thrown by the quarterback to a receiver
running quickly downfield.
|Bump and Run||A defensive strategy where a defensive player bumps the receiver at the line
of scrimmage to slow him down. The defender can legally make contact with
his hands for 5 yards.
|Cadence||The rhythm or tempo in which the quarterback calls out signals. The quarterback may slow down his cadence, for example, to try and draw the defense offside.|
|Carry||The term used to describe the function of the running back, i.e. what he
does with the ball.
|Center||The offensive lineman in the middle of the offensive line, who snaps (hikes)
the ball to the quarterback to begin each play. Centers need to be strong
and powerful, with the ability to block defenders well.
|Chain Crew||A group of individuals who are responsible for extending the yard marking
chains to determine whether a first down is made. The referee summons the
crew, and then decides whether the offense got the first down after the
chains have been extended.
|Chains||Two orange and black covered sticks which are separated by 10 yards and
connected by a metal chain. When the ball is marked on the field, one end of
the stick is placed at this point, and the other end is stretched out to the
full 10 yards to indicate where the offense needs to go to reach the first
|Chip Shot||A field goal which is attempted from a very short distance.
|Chop Block||An illegal block by a player, in which he undercuts another player below the
knees to tackle him. Any player who is found guilty of a chop block is
automatically ejected from the game.
|Clipping||A penalty assessed against an offensive player, in which said player blocks
a defensive player from behind.
|Clothesline||An illegal tackle in which a player extends his arm and tackles a player by
the neck. These tackles are extremely dangerous and are illegal. Players are
automatically ejected if they clothesline another player, and will often be
|Coffin Corner||A special type of punt which is designed to pin the receiving team deep in
their own territory. The punter angles the kick toward the corner of the end
zone in the hopes that the special teams can down the ball as close to the
goal line as possible.
|Completion||Term which refers to a forward pass which is caught legally (in-bounds) by a
|Cornerback||A defensive player who is aligned at the edge or corner of the field, and
who is assigned to cover the wide receiver of the offensive team.
Cornerbacks must be quick and athletic.
|Count||A series of numbers shouted by the quarterback prior to the ball being
snapped. The quarterback alerts the team as to which count the ball will be
snapped on in the huddle.
|Counter||An offensive running play which is designed to confuse a defense. The
defense could be expecting a pass and the counter is run to deceive the
|Dead Ball||A term which refers to a play being over and also that the ball cannot be
|Defense||The team without the ball, who is defending against a score.
|Defensive back||A secondary player whose function is to prevent an offensive receiver from
making a catch. Defensive backs need to be extremely quick.
|Defensive end||A defensive player whose function is to stop the run and pressure the
quarterback. As his name implies, he lines up on the end of the line.
|Defensive line||The sequence of defensive players who play on the front of the line opposite
the offensive line.
|Defensive tackle||A defensive player assigned to stop the run and make tackles in the
|Deflection||A thrown football which changes direction as a result of being touched or tipped by another player.|
|Delay of Game||A violation assessed against the offense, which occurs when the offense
fails to execute it's play within the allotted 40 seconds.
|Dime Back||A sixth defensive player who enters the game to defend against a pass.
|Double foul||One foul called on each team on the same play.
|Double team||A defensive strategy whereby two defenders cover one offensive player.
|Down||A sequence between between the time a play starts and when it ends. Teams
get 4 downs (or chances) to advance the ball 10 yards. If they do, they get
a fresh set of downs.
|Draw||A running play disguised as a pass play. The offensive linemen drop back as
if they are pass protecting for the quarterback. The quarterback drops back
to throw the ball and then at the last second hands the ball to the running
back, who runs through the hole created by the linemen.
|Encroachment||A penalty assessed against the offense, worth 5 yards, in which an offensive
player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, making
contact with a defensive player.
|End Zone||The 10 yard areas at each end of the field which contain the goalposts. This
is where all scoring plays occur.
|Extra Point||A scoring play which occurs after a touchdown is scored, in which the
placekicker kicks the ball through the uprights. It is worth one point and
is tacked on to the 6 points for the touchdown. Also known as "point after
|Face Mask||A penalty assessed against a player who grabs another player by the face mask in an attempt to tackle him. Face mask penalties can be intentional (15 yards) or incidental (accidental) in which case the penalty is 5 yards.|
|Fair catch||A signal in which a kick or punt returner waives his arms over his head from
side to side, indicating that he is going to catch the ball. When he does
so, the opposing team cannot touch him and he cannot advance the ball. The
ball is marked at the point where he catches the ball.
|Fake||A deceptive maneuver, usually by the offense, in which a player will pretend
to do one thing and actually do another to confuse the other team.
|False Start||A penalty assessed against the offense, occurring when an offensive player
leaves his stance and moves before the ball is snapped.
|Field Goal||A scoring play in which the ball is kicked through the goalpost by the
kicker. The kick, if it is good, is worth 3 points and is generally, but not
always, attempted from 40 yards or closer.
|Field Judge||The official who supervises the play clock. He also checks for players being onside. He looks for pass interference on the strong side of the field, and watches for illegal use of hands.|
|First Down||The point at which each team begins with possession of the ball. Teams get 4
chances, or downs, to move the ball 10 yards. When a team gains the
necessary yardage, it receives a new, fresh set of downs.
|Flag||An object thrown by the referee to indicate a penalty is coming. Flags are bright yellow.|
|Flanker||An offensive player who is a pass receiver. Also known as wide receiver.
|Flat||An area close to the line of scrimmage between the hash marks and the
sideline. Running backs catch many passes in the flat.
|Flea-Flicker||A trick play run by the offense to deceive the defense. It is a pass play
disguised as a running play. The quarterback hands the ball to the running
back who runs forward towards the line. When the running back gets to the
line, he stops, turns, and pitches the ball back to the quarterback. The
quarterback then passes the ball downfield to a receiver who has already
|Formation||An offensive or defensive arrangement of players, aligned in a specific way.
|Foul||Any infraction of the rules of play, as determined by the referee.
|Four-three (4-3) defense||A defensive alignment with four defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage,
and then three linebackers lined up behind the line of scrimmage.
|Free Safety||The deepest aligned player in the secondary. He defends against the long
pass. His role is similar to the center fielder in baseball.
|Fullback||An offensive player in the backfield who blocks for the running back and the
quarterback. They are also used to carry the ball in short yardage situations.
|Fumble||Term used to describe an offensive player who drops or loses possession of
the ball during the course of a play. When a ball is fumbled, either team
can attempt to recover the loose ball.
|Gap||The amount of space between players aligned on the line of scrimmage.
|Goal To Go||This expression means that the offensive team is inside the opponents' 10
yard line and needs only the yardage from where the ball is marked to the
end zone to attain a score. For example, if the offense gains a first down
at the opponents' 8 yard-line, it would not be 1st and 10 because they only
need 8 yards for a score, so it would be called "first and goal."
|Gridiron||Another term for the playing surface of a football field, more specifically
the pattern created by the white lines on said surface. These lines were
first introduced on football fields in 1882 for a college game. Because of
the pattern created by the lines on the field, the field became known as a
"gridiron", the word "grid" representing the geometric pattern of the lines,
and "iron" to represent a game which required great physical strength.
|Guard||Offensive players on the offensive line, lining up on the other side of the
center. They protect the quarterback and block defenders.
|Hail Mary||An extremely long pass by the quarterback, thrown in desperation, usually at
the end of the game. This pass will occur if the team has time for one last
play, and needs to score a touchdown to tie or win the game.
offensive player who runs with the ball in the backfield.
|Hands team||A special group of special teams players who are inserted into the game to recover onside kicks. These players have good skill in holding on to the ball and not fumbling it.|
|Hang time||The amount of time that a punted ball stays in the air. If a punted ball
traveling 50 yards stays in the air for 3 or 4 seconds, that is excellent
|Handoff||The action of the ball being given to another player, most often the running
|Hashmarks||The rows of lines on the field, near the middle of the field, that signal 1
yard increments. The ball is marked at or near the hashmarks prior to each
|Headhunter||A term describing a defensive player who has a reputation for making strong, aggressive tackles on an offensive player who catches passes.|
|Head Linesman||The official on the field that lines up on the line of scrimmage and watches
for violations on the line of scrimmage like encroachment, offside, and
illegal men downfield. The head linesmen is also responsible for the chain
|Holder||The player, usually the punter or backup quarterback, who holds the snapped
ball so that the field goal kicker can kick it.
|Holding||A penalty assessed against a player who impedes the progress of another player by grabbing hold of an arm or jersey to prevent the player from making a play.|
|Huddle||Groups of players who confer between plays to discuss strategy. Quarterbacks
call plays in the offensive huddle, and usually linebackers or defensive
captains call the plays in the defensive huddle.
|Hurry-up offense||An offensive strategy which is run to gain as much yardage as possible
before stopping the clock. Teams usually use this offense when they are
running out of time at the end of a half.
|I formation||An offensive set-up where the two running backs line up directly behind the
quarterback in the shape of an I.
|Illegal Player Downfield||A penalty assessed against the offense. It is called when a lineman moves
downfield to catch a pass. It is a 5 yard penalty against the offense.
|Illegal Shift||A penalty assessed against the offense, in which more than one offensive
player moves before the ball is snapped.
|Ineligible receiver||Any offensive lineman. Offensive linemen are in the game to block. They
cannot catch passes. If they do, a 5 yard penalty is called on the offense.
|Incompletion||A forward pass that is not caught by a receiver.
|Intentional Grounding||A penalty assessed against the quarterback. When a quarterback is about to
be sacked, and deliberately tries to get rid of the ball without a receiver
in the area, the penalty assessed is intentional grounding. The quarterback
does this to attempt to avoid a sack, which is illegal.
|Interception||A forward pass
by the offense that is caught by a member of the other team's defense.
|Kickoff||A kick which starts the game and also the second half. The team that kicks
off to start the game receives the kickoff to start the second half. If the
game goes into overtime a coin toss is used to determine who kicks off in
|Lateral||A pass thrown from side to side by an offensive player to an offensive
teammate. Laterals are not forward passes.
|Line Judge||The official on the field who watches for illegal motion and illegal shifts. They assist all of the other officials. The line judge is responsible for overseeing the timing of the game .He takes over the timing if the scoreboard clock malfunctions.|
|Line of Scrimmage||The imaginary boundary of space between the offensive and defensive lines
prior to the ball being snapped. The line of scrimmage is where each play
starts, and it is where the first contact between the linemen are made.
|Linebacker||A defensive player who is stationed behind the line, and who defends against
both the run and the pass. Linebackers always must be good tacklers.
|Man to Man coverage||A defensive strategy in which every defensive player is assigned to cover an
|Motion||Side to side movements run laterally behind the line of scrimmage by an
offensive player, usually a wide receiver, before the ball is snapped.
|Muffed Ball||A ball that is juggled and mishandled by a player, but the player is able to keep control of it.|
|Neutral Zone||The area between the offensive and defensive lines at the line of scrimmage.
Teams must remain behind the neutral zone prior to the ball being snapped.
|Nickel back||A 5th defensive back who enters the game in specific formations. Teams start
with two safeties and two defensive backs, and the nickel back represents an
extra defensive back.
|Nose tackle||A defensive player who lines up across from the center, who primarily
defends against running plays.
|Offense||The team which has possession of the ball and is trying to score.|
|Offensive line||The 5 offensive players up front who protect the quarterback and block for
ball carriers. The offensive line is made up of two guards, a center, and
|Offensive Pass Interference||A violation in which an offensive player interferes with the defensive
player's ability to catch a pass.
|Offsetting Penalties||Two penalties assessed by the referee, one on each team, of equal yardage. The penalties cancel each other out, or offset each other.|
|Offside||Violation in which a player moves into the neutral zone or beyond it before
the ball is snapped to the quarterback. Also known as encroachment.
|Off-tackle||A running play whereby the running back runs toward the end of the line
towards the tight end (the strong side) and attempts to run through a hole
which is created by the offensive tackle.
|Onside kick||A short intentional kick by the kicking team that is designed to recover the
ball quickly for the offense. The team that is on-side kicking is losing the
game at the end, and needs to recover the ball to score. The kick occurs
after a score by the offense. The kick must travel 10 yards before it can be
recovered, and no player can touch the ball until it travels 10 yards.
|Option||A play which describes a quarterback having a choice (option) of running or
passing the ball.
|Pancake||A type of block in which a player hits another player with enough force to knock him down, with the blocked player usually landing flat on his back.|
|Pass Interference||A violation in which a defensive player impedes an offensive player's
ability to catch a forward pass.
|Personal Foul||A penalty, 15 yards in total, assessed on a player who commits a flagrant
violation of the rules. Examples include grabbing a player by the face mask,
unnecessary roughness, and roughing the kicker.
|Pitch||A tossing of the ball from the quarterback to the running back.
|Placekicker||The player who is responsible for kicking field goals and also kicking off
to the other team.
|Play-Action Pass||A type of pass by the quarterback where he pretends to hand off to the
running back as he drops back to pass.
|The area where the quarterback stands before he delivers the ball.
Quarterbacks drop back 2 or 3 yards, it is here that they are in the pocket.
|Possession||A term that describes a team having control of the ball on offense. It also
refers to a receiver being in control of a pass thrown to him.
|Post||A passing route where the quarterback throws the ball down the center of the
field, to a receiver who has stopped at an agreed upon post. The receiver
attempts to line up with the goalpost.
|Pump Fake||The act of a quarterback pretending to throw to one receiver, then actually throwing to another.|
|Punt||A kicked ball which transfers possession of the ball to the other team. If a
team is in their own territory on fourth down and needs several yards to
gain a first down, it is advisable to punt the ball away to pin the other
team back in their own territory.
|Punter||The player who punts the ball.
|Quarterback||The offensive leader of a team. He calls plays in the huddle, throws passes,
and hands the ball to the running back. Quarterbacks should be agile and
have good arm strength, and they need to be very intelligent and good
|Quarterback Sneak||A running play in which the quarterback keeps the ball and plows ahead for 1 yard behind his blockers, in an attempt to get a first down or score a touchdown.|
|Red Zone||The area from the opposition's 20 yard line to the goal line. A team's
offense is gauged based on the percentage of times that they score within
the red zone.
|Referee||The official, wearing a white hat, that makes all decisions regarding penalties and interpretations of the rules. He enforces the rules and throws flags when a penalty is called. His word is final.|
|Return||The act of catching a kicked ball and running back with it towards the
opponents' end zone.
|Reverse||A misdirection play designed to confuse the defense. The quarterback hands
off to a running back who then hands the ball off to a receiver who is
running laterally towards him. This swings the play to the opposite side of
the field. This play works well if a team has a speedy receiver who can
|Roughing the kicker||A penalty in which a defensive player makes contact with the kicker after the ball has been kicked. The penalty is 15 yards.|
|Roughing the passer||A penalty (15 yards) assessed against the defense, when a defensive player makes contact with the quarterback after the ball has been thrown.|
|Route||A specific pattern which is run by a receiver in an effort to get open to
catch a pass. Receivers must run a route on every play.
|Running back||An offensive player who lines up behind the quarterback and who is
responsible for running with the football. Running backs must possess great
speed and quickness.
|Running into the kicker||A 5 yard penalty called against a defensive player who accidentally makes contact with the kicker.|
|Sack||This term refers to a defensive player who tackles the quarterback behind
the line of scrimmage. This play results in a loss of yardage by the
offense. Any member of the defense can sack the quarterback, but it most
often occurs by linebackers or defensive linemen.
|Safety||A score worth two points. Safeties occur when a defensive player tackles an
offensive player in his own end zone. Safeties are also awarded when a ball
is snapped out of the end zone, or if a player runs out of his own end zone,
whether deliberately or not. The term safety also refers to the player who
plays this position, a defensive player in the secondary who guards against
long passes thrown downfield.
|Scatback||A small lightweight running back whose assets are speed and quickness rather
than size and weight.
|Scheme||A word used to represent formations, and how to use them.
|Scramble||This is what the quarterback does when he runs out of the pocket and tries to escape rushing linemen and is looking for a receiver to throw the ball to.|
|Screen Pass||A short, quick pass dumped off to a running back in which he has offensive
linemen blocking for him.
|Secondary||The area where four defensive players are lined up deepest on their side of
the field, behind the linemen. Their job is to guard against the long pass.
|Shotgun||An offensive formation which positions the quarterback at least 5 yards
behind the center, and usually not more than 7. This formation allows the
quarterback to gain more time in analyzing the defense and more time to
throw the ball.
|Side Judge||An official who watches for violations downfield, on long passes. The side judge also decides whether a field goal or extra points are good.|
|Sidelines||The areas along the sides of the field where coaches
and non-participating players stand. Any player who
runs to a sideline is deemed to be out of bounds, stopping the clock.
|Single-wing formation||An offensive strategy which employs maximum blocking power so that a running
back can advance the ball. This scheme is hardly ever used anymore, at any
|Slant||An offensive running play whereby a running back veers, or slants, toward an
angle after receiving the ball, as opposed to running straight ahead.
|Smashmouth Football||An offensive philosophy of football in which the style of play is to put
consistent pressure on the defense by running the ball and playing in an
|Snap||The act of the ball being hiked to either the quarterback, or holder, or
|Spearing||A penalty assessed against a player who uses his helmet deliberately in an attempt to injure another player. Spearing is cause for ejection from the game.|
|Special teams||The players who come on to the field during kickoffs and punt returns. This
is a unit all in and of itself.
|Spiral||A perfectly thrown football, which is evidenced by the tight spin on the
ball after it is thrown.
|Split End||Another term for a player who catches passes. Also known as wide receivers,
they line up on the line of scrimmage.
|Statue of Liberty Play||This is a trick play run by the offense, and it is one of the oldest plays
in football. The Statue of Liberty play is a running play disguised as a
pass play, and it is used very infrequently these days. In this play, the
quarterback drops back to pass and brings his arm back to throw, holding the
ball outstretched in his hand. As the ball is outstretched, the running back
runs over and takes the ball out of the quarterback's hand and then runs
with the ball. Hence, the quarterback looks like the Statue of Liberty after
the ball leaves his hand.
|Strong Safety||A player on defense who aligns deep in the secondary but close to the line
of scrimmage. They guard against the pass and frequently are involved in
|Strong Side||The point of the offensive line where the tight end lines up.
|Stunt||A fake maneuver by a defensive linemen in which they stagger and change
their path to the quarterback in an effort to confuse the offensive linemen.
|Substitute||Bringing in one player to replace another player.
|Sweep||An offensive strategy whereby a running back runs laterally behind the
leading offensive linemen, who have cleared a path for him by blocking out
the defensive linemen. The running back runs laterally until the path has
been cleared, at which point he accelerates forward.
|T-formation||This is an offensive alignment where two running backs are lined up behind
the quarterback, and one back is split to the left and the other one to the
right. Also called a split backfield formation.
|Tackle||The process of bringing a player down to the ground with your hands. It also
refers to a specific position on each line, responsible for blocking and
tackling ball carriers.
|Takeaway||Term which describes a defensive recovery of a fumble, or an interception.
|Tailback||An offensive player who runs with the football.
|Tight End||A receiver who lines up on the end of the offensive line. He is responsible
for blocking defenders and catching passes from the quarterbacks. The tight
end's side is the strong side.
|Time of Possession||The total amount of time that the offense is in possession of the ball.|
|Touchback||A condition where a ball is ruled to be dead in an end zone. If a kickoff or
punt travels into the end zone untouched, the result is a touchback, and the
receiving team gets possession of the ball at it's own 20 yard line.
|Touchdown||A scoring play worth 6 points in which the ball is primarily either run with
or passed across the opponents' goal line, with the player remaining legally
in bounds. Scoring touchdowns is the essence of winning football games. The
defense also can score touchdowns, by returning an interception across their
opponents goal line, or by recovering a fumble in the end zone.
|Trenches||The point of attack where the linemen butt heads and attempt to gain
|Turnover||A term which refers to any loss of the football to the other team, whether
it be by fumble or interception.
|Two Minute Warning||An official time-out that occurs at the end of each half to indicate that there are 2 minutes left. This is the part of the game that gets most exciting in terms of action.|
|Two Point Conversion||A scoring play, worth 2 points, in which the offense tries to run or pass
the ball across the goal line after a touchdown is scored. If successful,
the 2 points is tacked on to the 6 points for the touchdown. The score and
the situation dictate whether or not a team will go for 2.
|Umpire||An official who monitors the legality of players equipment and monitors the
play on the line of scrimmage. He also watches for too many men on the field
violations and observes the contact between the linemen. The umpire also has
the important task of wiping the ball dry when it's raining!
|Unnecessary Roughness||A 15 yard penalty assessed against a player who uses excessive roughness or force against another player.|
|Unsportsmanlike Conduct||A personal foul against a player who engages in conduct or behavior unsportsmanlike to the game. Examples include taunting, gesturing, or abusive language.|
|Veer||A quick running play whereby the back cuts, or veers, away from the pursuing
|Weak Side||The point of the offensive line opposite the tight end.
|Wedge||A type of blocking strategy where a group of blockers form a V-shaped wedge to block and protect kick returners.|
|Wide Receiver||An offensive player whose function is to catch the football. Wideouts, as
they are sometimes called, line up on wide sides of the field and are
covered by cornerbacks on the defensive side of the ball.
|Wishbone||An offensive formation which is used to emphasize gaining yardage by means
of running the football. In this formation, the offense uses three backs in
addition to the quarterback. It is best used if the offense has a speedy,
|Zone Coverage||A defensive strategy where the defenders drop backwards to defend a specific area, or zone during a pass play, as opposed to covering an individual, specific player. (which is called man-to-man.)|