Glossary of American football

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The following terms are used in American football and Canadian football. See also: wiktionary:Category:Football (American)

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Contents: top - 0-9 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


a defensive formation with 3 linemen and 4 linebackers. A professional derivative in the 1970's of the earlier Oklahoma or "50" defense, which had 5 linemen and 2 linebackers. The 3-4 outside linebackers resemble "stand-up ends" in the older defense.
a defensive formation with 4 linemen and 3 linebackers. Several variations are employed. First used by coach Joe Kuharich.
46 defense 
a formation in which the defensive backs crowd the line of scrimmage, creating the appearance of 6 linebackers. The defense got its name from the "46" jersey number of Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank, who was a starter when Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan developed the defense in the first half of the 1980s. It is also known as the "Bear" defense because Ryan popularized it with the Bears, and took it with him to future NFL head coaching positions.
50 defense  
a once popular college defense with 5 defensive linemen and 2 linebackers.


a play called by the quarterback at the line of scrimmage to change the play that was called in the huddle.
an audible. Also referred to as a "check-off".


A position behind the offensive line, or behind the linebackers on defense.
a defensive maneuver in which one or more linebackers or defensive backs, who normally remain behind the line of scrimmage, instead charge into the opponents' backfield.
an offensive play in which the quarterback pretends to hand the ball to another player, and then carries the ball with few or no blockers toward a sideline, then attempts to either pass or run with the ball. Contrast with scramble, sneak, and draw
the box 
an area on the defensive side of the ball, directly opposite the offensive linemen and about 5 yards deep; having 8 players in the box means bringing in a defensive back, normally the strong safety, to help stop the offensive team's running game


a player position on offense. The center snaps the ball.
the 10-yard long chain that is used by the chain crew to measure for a new series of downs.
chuck and duck 
a style of offense with mininal pass protection requiring the Quarterback to "chuck" the ball then "duck" to avoid a defensive lineman.
an illegal block in which the victim is blocked from the back and below the waist; the penalty is 15 yards. Originally, clipping was defined as any block from the back, but is now restricted to blocks below the waist. Other blocks from the back are now punished with 10-yard penalties.
coffin corner 
the corner of the field of play. A punter, if he is close enough, will often attempt to kick the ball out of bounds close to the receiving team's goal line and pin them back near their own end zone.
a defensive back who lines up near the line of scrimmage across from a wide receiver. Their primary job is to disrupt passing routes and to defend against short and medium passes.
a running play in which the running back will take a step in the opposite direction of the play, only to get the handoff in the other direction. Weak side linemen will sometimes pull and lead the back downfield (sometimes called a counter trap), but not necessarily. The play is designed to get the defense to flow away from the action for a few steps, allowing more room for the running back.
crackback block 
an illegal block delivered below the opponent's waist by an offensive player who had left the area of close line play and then returned to it, or was not within it at the snap. The term is also used to describe a legal block (delivered from the front, or from the side with the offensive player's helmet in front of the blocked player) by a wide receiver on a player who lined up inside of him.
cut blocking
a blocking technique in which offensive linemen, and sometimes other blockers, block legally below the waist (i.e., from the front of the defensive player) in an attempt to bring the defenders to ground, making them unable to pursue a running back for the short time needed for the back to find a gap in the defense. The technique is somewhat controversial, as it carries a risk of serious leg injuries to the blocked defenders. The NFL's Denver Broncos are especially famous (or infamous) for using this technique.


dead ball 
a ball which is not in play.
defensive back 
a cornerback or safety position on the defensive team; commonly defends against wide receivers on passing plays. Generally there are 4 defensive backs playing at a time; but see nickel back and dime back.
defensive end 
a player position on defense
defensive tackle 
a player position on defense
defensive team 
the team that begins a play from scrimmage not in possession of the ball.
dime back 
the second extra, or sixth total, defensive back. Named because a dime has the same value as two nickels.
one of a series of plays in which the offensive team must advance at least 10 yards or lose possession. First down is the first of the plays; fourth is the last down in American, and third in Canadian, football. A first down occurs after a change of possession of the ball, after advancing the ball 10 yards following a previous first down or after certain penalties.
draw play 
a play in which the quarterback drops back as if to pass, then hands off to a running back or runs with the ball himself. Contrast with scramble
  • A continuous set of offensive plays gaining substantial yardage and several first downs, usually leading to a scoring opportunity.
  • A blocking technique - "drive block" - in which an offensive player through an advantaged angle or with assistance drive a defensive player out of position creating a hole for the ball carrier.
drop kick 
a kick in which the ball is dropped and kicked once it hits the ground and before it hits it again; a half-volley kick.


eligible receivers 
players who may legally touch a forward pass. On the passer's team, these are: the ends (see below), the backs, and (except in the NFL), one player in position to take a hand-to-hand snap, i.e. a T quarterback; provided the player's shirt displays a number in the ranges allowed for eligible receivers. All players of the opposing team are eligible receivers, and once the ball is touched by a player of the opposing team (anywhere in American, or beyond the lines of scrimmage in Canadian football), all players become eligible.
an illegal action by a player: to cross the line of scrimmage and make contact with an opponent before the ball is snapped, or to line up offside and remain there when the ball is put in play.
a player position, either on offense or defense -- see linemen.
end zone 
the area between the end line (or deadline in Canadian amateur football) and the goal line, bounded by the sidelines.
extra point 
a single point scored in a conversion attempt by making what would be a field goal or a safety during general play.


fair catch 
An unhindered catch of an opponent's kick. The player wanting to make one must signal for a fair catch by waving an arm overhead while the ball is in the air.
field of play 
the area between both the goal lines and the sidelines, and in some contexts the space vertically above it.
field goal 
score of 3 points made by place- or drop-kicking the ball through the opponent's goal other than via a kickoff or free kick following a safety; formerly, "goal from the field".
a player position on offense. A wide receiver who lines up 1 or more yards off the line of scrimmage. The flanker can line up either outside the tight end, outside the split end, or in the slot between the split end and the offensive linemen.
an area on the field between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards into the defensive backfield, and within 15 yards of the sideline. Running backs often run pass routes to the flat when they are the safety valve receiver.
the arrangement of players on a team prior to the ostensible beginning of a play.
forward pass 
a pass that touches a person, object, or the ground closer to the opponent's end line than where it was released from, or is accidentally lost during a forward throwing motion.
free kick 
a kick made to put the ball in play as a kickoff or following a safety (the score; "safety touch" in Canadian football) or fair catch.
free safety 
a player position on defense. Free safeties typically play deep, or "center field", and often have the pass defense responsibility of assisting other defensive backs in deep coverage (compared to strong safeties, who usually have an assigned receiver and run support responsibilities).
a player position on offense. Originally, lined up deep behind the quarterback in the T formation. In modern formations this position may be varied, and this player has more blocking responsibilities in comparison to the running back or tailback.
a ball that a player accidentally lost possession of; in Canadian football the term includes muffs.


a surface in space marked by a structure of two upright posts 18 feet 6 inches apart extending above a horizontal crossbar whose top edge is 10 feet off the ground. The goal is the surface above the bar and between the lines of the inner edges of the posts, extending infinitely upward, centered above each end line in American, and each goal line in Canadian football.
goal area 
the end zone in Canadian professional football.
goal line 
the front of the end zone.
a football field, so called for its markings.
one of two player positions on offense -- see linemen. A 5-player defensive line will have one, and a defensive line of 6 or more players, two guards, while a defensive line of fewer than 5 players has no guard.


Hail Mary 
a long pass play, thrown towards a group of receivers near the end zone in hope of a touchdown. Used by a team that is behind as time is running out. Refers to the Catholic prayer.
a player position on offense. Also known as a running back.
a player's handing of a live ball to another player. Sometimes called a "switch" in touch football. (Note different usage of term from its rugby meaning.)
hash marks 
lines between which the ball begins each play. The lines are parallel to and a distance in from the side lines and marked as broken lines.
a player who holds the ball upright for a place kick. Often backup quarterbacks are used for their superior ball-handling ability.
there are two kinds of holding: offensive holding, illegally blocking a player from the opposing team by grabbing and holding his uniform or body. defensive holding, called against defensive players who impede receivers who are more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, but who are not actively making an attempt to catch the ball (if the defensive player were to impede an offensive player in the act of catching the ball, that would be the more severe penalty of pass interference
an on-field gathering of members of a team in order to secretly communicate instructions for the upcoming play.


I formation 
A formation that includes a fullback and tailback lined up with the fullback directly in front of the tailback. If a third back is in line, this is referred to as a "full house I". If the third back is lined up along side the fullback, it is referred to as a "Power I".
incomplete pass 
a forward pass of the ball which no player legally caught.
inbound lines 
the hash marks.
the legal catching of a forward pass thrown by an opposing player.


an offensive formation which includes two tight ends, one on either side, plus a full back and running back in an i formation. Sometimes one of the tight ends is shifted next to the other as a wingback, with a blocking back also lined up to that side -- this is referred to as a heavy jumbo.


as a verb, to strike the ball deliberately with the foot; as a noun, such an action producing a punt, place kick, or drop kick
a free kick which starts each half, or restarts the game following a touchdown or field goal. The kickoff may be a place kick in American or Canadian football, or a drop kick in American football.
kick returner 
a player on the receiving team who specializes in fielding kicks and running them back.
a low risk play in which the quarterback kneels down after receiving the snap, ending the play. Used to run out the clock.


a pass thrown to the side or backward. Also called "backward pass" in American football, "onside pass" in Canadian football.
line of scrimmage 
vertical planes parallel to the goal line when the ball is to be put in play by scrimmage. For each team in American football, the line of scrimmage is thru the point of the ball closest to their end line. In Canadian football, the line of scrimmage of the defensive team is one yard their side of the ball.
line to gain 
a line parallel to the goal lines, such that having the ball dead beyond it entitles the offense to a new series of downs, i.e. a new "first down". The line is 10 yards in advance of where the ball was to be snapped for the previous first down.
a player position on defense. The linebackers typically play 1 to 3 yards behind the defensive linemen and have both run and pass defense responsibilities. However they are often called on to blitz, and in some formations a linebacker may be designated as a "rush linebacker", rushing the passer on almost every play.
a defensive or offensive position on the line of scrimmage.
  • On offense, the player snapping the ball is the center. The players on either side of him are the guards, and the players to the outside of him are the tackles. The players on the end of the line are the ends. This may be varied in an unbalanced line.
  • On defense, the outside linemen are ends, and those inside are tackles. If there are 5 or 6 linemen, the inner most linemen are known as guards. This is rare in professional football except for goal-line defense, but is sometimes seen in high school or college.
live ball 
any ball that is in play, whether it is a player's possession or not. The ball is live during plays from scrimmage and free kicks, including kickoffs.
long snapper 
a center who specializes in the long, accurate snaps required for punts and field goal attempts. Most teams employ a specialist long snapper instead of requiring the normal center to perform this duty.
loose ball 
any ball that is in play and not in a player's possession. This includes a ball in flight during a lateral or forward pass.


man coverage 
same as man-to-man coverage
a player on offense who is moving backwards or parallel to the line of scrimmage just before the snap. Only one offensive player can be in motion at a time.
man-to-man coverage 
a defense in which all players in pass coverage, typically linebackers and defensive backs, cover a specific player. Pure man coverage is very rare; defenses typically mix man and zone coverage.
a loose ball that is dropped or mishandled while the player is attempting to gain possession.


neutral zone 
the region between the lines of scrimmage or between the free kick restraining lines
the National Football League
nickel back 
an extra, or fifth, defensive back. Named after the coin, worth five cents. Popularized by the Miami Dolphins in the 1970s, now common.
no-huddle offense 
a tactic wherein the offense quickly forms near the line of scrimmage without huddling before the next play.
nose tackle 
a tackle in a 3-man defensive line who lines up "opposite the center's nose".


offensive team 
the team with possession of the ball
  • an infraction of the rule that requires both teams to be on their own side of their restraining line as or before the ball is put play. Offside is normally called on the defensive team.
  • in Canadian football, at the time a ball is kicked by a teammate, being ahead of the ball, or being the person who held the ball for the place kick
one back formation  
a formation where the offensive team has one running back in the backfield with the quarterback. Other eligible receivers are near the line of scrimmage.
onside kick 
a play in which the kicking team tries to recover the kicked ball.
  • Usually, a type of play in which the quarterback has the option of handing off, keeping, or laterally passing to one or more backs. Often described by a type of formation or play action, such as triple option, veer option, or counter option. Teams running option plays often specialize in them.
  • Less often, a play in which a back may either pass or run


pass interference 
when a player illegally hinders an eligible receiver's opportunity to catch forward pass.
place kick 
kicking the ball from where it has been placed stationary on the ground or, where legal, on a tee.
the action between the snap of the ball, and the end of play signaled by the official's whistle for a tackle or out of bounds
the plan of action the offensive team has for each snap, for example a running play or pass play
an area on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage, where the offensive linemen attempt to prevent the defensive players from reaching the quarterback during passing plays
a place where a player plays relative to teammates, and/or a role filled by that player
prevent defense 
a defensive strategy that utilizes deep zone coverage in order to prevent a big pass play from happening downfield, usually at the expense of giving up yards at shorter distances. Often used against hail mary plays, or at the end of the game when the defending team is protecting a lead. Disparaged by many fans.
a term used to describe an offensive lineman who, instead of blocking the player in front of him, steps back and moves down the line("pulls") to block another player, usually in a "trap" or "sweep."
a kick in which the ball is dropped and kicked before it reaches the ground. Used to give up the ball to the opposition after offensive downs have been used, as far down the field as possible.
a kicker who specializes in punts as opposed to kickoffs or field goals.


an offensive player behind and close to a lineman, usually in position to take a hand-to-hand snap. Frequent incorrect name for tailback in shotgun formation.
quick kick 
an unexpected punt.


red dog 
a blitz.
restraining line 
a team's respective line of scrimmage
at a free kick, the line the ball is to be kicked from (for the kicking team), or a line 10 yards in advance of that (for the receiving team)
an offensive play in which a ballcarrier going toward one side of the field hands or tosses the ball to a teammate who is running in the opposite direction (if the second ballcarrier is an end, it is an "end around").
run and shoot
an offensive philosophy designed to force the defense to show its hand prior to the snap of the ball by splitting up receivers and sending them in motion. Receivers run patterns based on the play of the defenders, rather than a predetermined plan.
running back
a player position on offense
trying to tackle or hurry a player before he can throw a pass or make a kick
a running play


tackling a ball carrier who intends to throw a forward pass. A sack is also awarded if a player forces a fumble of the ball, or the ball carrier to go out of bounds, behind the line of scrimmage on an apparent intended forward pass play. The term gained currency ca. 1970.
  1. a player position on defense -- see free safety and strong safety.
  2. a method of scoring (worth two points) by downing an opposing ballcarrier in his own end zone, forcing the opposing ballcarrier out of his own end zone AND out of bounds, or forcing the offensive team to fumble the ball so that it exits the end zone. A safety is also awarded if the offensive team commits a penalty within its own end zone. After a safety, the team that was scored upon must kick the ball to the scoring team from its own 20-yard line.
    A safety scored during a try scores 1 point and is followed by a kickoff as for any other try.
safety valve 
a receiver who gets a short pass because all other receivers are covered.
on a called passing play, when the quarterback runs from the pocket in an attempt to avoid being sacked, giving the receivers more time to get open or attempting to gain positive yards by running himself.
screen pass 
a short forward pass to a receiver who has blockers in front of him. The receiver in this play is usually a running back or fullback, although wide receiver and tight end screens are sometimes employed.
see: play from scrimmage
when two or more offensive players move at the same time before the snap. All players who move in a shift must come to a complete stop prior to the snap.
the action of a linebacker or defensive back to blitz
shotgun formation 
formation in which offensive team may line up at the start of a play. In this formation, the tailback receives the snap 5-8 yards behind the center.
single wing 
a formation, now out of fashion, most popular about 1920-50, with an overload and wingback on one side and two backs about 5 yards deep to receive the snap.
The area between a split end and the offensive line. A pass receiver lined up in the slot at the snap of the ball may be called a slotback or slot receiver.
the handoff or pass from the center that begins a play from scrimmage.
an offensive play in which the quarterback, immediately on receiving the snap dives forward with the ball. The play is used when a team needs a very short gain to reach either the goal line or the line to gain.
special teams 
the units that handle kickoffs, punts, free kicks and field goal attempts.
a play in which the quarterback throws the ball at the ground immediately after the snap. Technically an incomplete pass, it stops the clock.
the distance between the feet of adjacent offensive linemen. Said to be wide, if there is a large gap between players, or narrow, if the gap is small.
split end 
a player position on offence. A wide receiver who lines up on the line of scrimmage, several yards ouside the offensive linemen.
the pole attached to the end of the 10-yard chain that is used by the chain crew to measure for a new series of downs -- i.e. the line to gain a new "first down".
stiff-arm or straight-arm 
a ballcarrier warding off a would-be tackler by pushing them away with a straight arm.
strong safety 
a player position on defense. This is a central defensive back; originally, the term indicated that he lined up on the strong side of the field. However, the modern usage of the term now indicates a central defensive back with responsibility for run and pass support, slightly favoring run support.
strong side 
definition depends on the offensive formation. When a team uses one tight end, the strong side is the side of the field where the tight end lines up. If the offensive package uses no tight end, or more than one tight end, the strong side is the side of the field with the most offensive players on or just behind the line of scrimmage.
a tactic used by defensive players in which they switch roles in an attempt to get past the blockers.
a running play in which several blockers lead a running back on a designed play to the outside. Depending on the number of blockers and the design of the play this is sometimes referred to as a "power sweep" or "student-body-right" (or left).


a classic offensive formation with the quarterback directly behind the center and three running backs behind the quarterback, forming a 'T'. Numerous variations have been developed including the split-T, wing-T, and wishbone-T.
player position on offense farthest ("deepest") back, except in kicking formations. Also often referred to as the running back, particularly in a one-back offense.
tight end 
a player position on offense, an eligible receiver ligned up on the line of scrimmage, next to the offensive tackle. Tight ends are used as blockers during running plays, and either run a route or stay in to block during passing plays.
the act of downing the ball behind one's own goal line after the ball had been propelled over the goal by the opposing team. After a touchback, the team that downed it gets the ball at their own 20-yard line.
a play worth six points, accomplished by gaining legal possession of the ball in the opponent's end zone. It also allows the team a chance for one extra point by kicking the ball or a two point conversion; see "try" below.
a basic blocking pattern in which a defensive lineman is allowed past the line of scrimmage, only to be blocked at an angle by a "pulling" lineman. Designed to gain a preferred blocking angle and larger hole in the line.
a formation in which 3 wide receivers are lined up close to one another on the same side of the field. Also refers to those receivers. Used to create potential for confusion or collision between defenders as these receivers split up.
two-point conversion 
a play worth two points accomplished by gaining legal possession of the ball in the opponent's end zone after a touchdown has been made; see "try" below
a scrimmage play, from close to their opponent's goal line, awarded to a team which has scored a touchdown, allowing them (and in some codes, their opponents) to score an additional 1 or 2 points; also called "try-for-point", "conversion", "convert" (Canadian), "extra point(s)", "point(s) after (touchdown)" or PAT


unbalanced line 
usually refers to an offensive formation which does not have an equal number of linemen on each side of the ball. Done to gain a blocking advantage on one side of the formation; typically one tackle or guard lines up on the other side of the ball. For example a common alignment would be E-G-C-G-T-T-E.


a type of option offense using 2 backs in the backfield, one behind each guard or tackle (referred to as split backs), allowing a triple option play (give to either back or quarterback keep).


weak side 
when one tight end is used, the side of the field opposite the tight end. In other offensive packages, the side of the field with the fewest offensive players on or just behind the line of scrimmage.
west coast offense
an offensive philosophy that uses short, high-percentage passes as the core of a ball-control offense. Widely used but originally made popular by San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh. A main component of the west coast offense is use of all the eligible receivers in the short passing game.
wide receiver 
a player position on offense. He is split wide (usually about 10 yards) from the formation and plays on the line of scrimmage as a split end or one yard off as a flanker.
wing back 
a player position in some offensive formations. Lines up just outside the tight end and one yard off the line of scrimmage. May be a receiver but is more typically used as a blocking back.


Term used in play calling that usually refers to the split end, or the wide receiver that lines up on the line of scrimmage. For example, "Split Right Jet 529 X Post" tells the X-receiver to run a post route.


Term usually used in offensive play calling to refer to the tight end. For example, "Buffalo Right 534 Boot Y Corner" tells the Y-receiver to run a corner route.


a term used in offensive play calling that usually refers to the flanker, or the wide receiver that lines up off the line of scrimmage. For example, "Panther Gun 85 Slant Z Go" tells the Z-receiver to run a go (also called a fly or streak) route.
zone defense 
a defense in which players who are in pass coverage cover zones of the field, instead of individual players. Pure zone packages are seldom used; most defenses employ some combination of zone and man coverage.
zone blitz 
A defensive package combining a blitz with zone pass coveragee. Allows the defense to choose the blitzer after the offense shows formation and pass coverage requirements, and features unpredictable blitzes from different linebackers and defensive backs. Invented by coach Dick LeBeau.

0-9 A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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