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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 01:16 GMT
NFL in a nutshell
Picture of a American Football field
The pitch, or gridiron, is covered in yardage markers
As Super Bowl XXXVII approaches, BBC Sport Online provides a simple guide to the basics of the National Football League.

Don't know your snap from your safety? Well this guide aims to make the game between the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that little bit easier to watch.


BASICS
Essentials
11 players from each team on the pitch
Four 15-minute quarters
Each team is entitled to three time-outs per half
12-minute half-time between the second and third quarters
15-minute sudden-death over-time if scores are tied at full-time
The purpose of the game is to move the ball towards, and ultimately into, the opposition's end zone.

This is achieved by either running with the ball until tackled, or throwing the ball downfield to a team-mate.


DOWNS
Downs are the most fundamental, and confusing, part of the NFL rulebook.

The attacking team, or offence, needs to move the ball forward in chunks of at least 10 yards, which is why the pitch has yardage markings.

They have four chances, or downs, to gain those 10 yards.

When the ball has advanced that far another first down is earned, with four more chances to go a further 10 yards.

If the offensive team fails to move 10 yards within four downs, possession is surrendered, although the ball is usually kicked, or punted, to the defending team on fourth down.

While most scoring comes from near the defending team's end zone, a touchdown can be scored from anywhere on the field, and on any down.


PLAYS
These are the complicated movements involving all 11 players teams use to move the ball downfield.

Plays are called by the head coach or quarterback, who is the attacking lynchpin of any team.

While the term usually refers to attacking teams, defending teams also use set plays to stop their opponents' forward movement.


SCORING
Touchdown (six points)
A touchdown is scored when a team crosses the opposition's goal line with the ball, or catches or collects the ball in the end zone.

Field goal (three points)
These are usually attempted on fourth down if the kicker is close enough to the end zone to kick the ball through the posts, or uprights.

Extra point (one or two points)
A point is earned by kicking the ball through the uprights after a touchdown (similar to a rugby conversion). Two points are earned by taking the ball into the end zone again.

Safety (two points)
Awarded to the defensive team when a member of the offensive team is tackled with the ball in his own end zone.


POSITIONS
Although there are only 11 players from each side on the field at any one time, an American football team is made up of 45 players, ranging in size, speed and their roles within the team.

The offence
A team's attacking players who attempt to move the ball forward and score touchdowns.

The key man is the quarterback. On the quarterback's signal, the centre snaps the ball back between his legs to the QB (similar to rugby league's play-the-ball).

The quarterback can then either run with the ball, hand it to a running back, or pass it downfield to one of his receivers.

A typical offensive line-up
1 & 11 Wide receivers
2 & 6 Tackles
3 & 5 Guards
4 Centre
7 Tight end
8 Quarterback
9 Running back
10 Full back

The defence
The role of the defence is to stop the other team from scoring by tackling the ball-carrier, intercepting passes or causing fumbles.

The defence is made up of big, powerful players trying to stop the other team from running the ball, and fast, athletic players trying to prevent the quarterback's passes from reaching his receivers.

The defence's power players also attempt to tackle, or sack, the quarterback before he has thrown the ball, while any defender can cause a fumble by knocking the ball from a ball-carrier's grasp.

A '3-4' defensive set-up
1 & 3 - Cornerbacks
2 - Free safety
4, 5, 6, 7 - Linebackers
8 - Strong safety
9 & 11 - Defensive ends
10 - Nose, or defensive, tackle

Special teams
Responsible for all plays involving kicks or punts.

Special teams play a small but vital role. They come onto the field to execute field goal or extra point attempts, and when the team wants to punt the ball downfield on fourth down.

They are also responsible for trying to block the opposition's kicks and punts, as well as attempting to return them as far as possible in the other direction.


Those are the basics of American football - so sit back with a beer and a hotdog, and enjoy the action.

BBC Sport Online rounds up the latest news from the NFL.

Bucs 48-21 Raiders

How they got there

Other features

SUPER BOWL DEBATE

STATISTICS

INTERNET LINKS
Links to more US Sport stories are at the foot of the page.


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