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How American Football Works

The Football Offense

An NFL roster allows for no more than 53 players on a team. At any one time, only 11 players per team are allowed on the field. To understand an NFL roster, you have to identify the three teams within a team: the offense, the defense and special teams. Each of these groups has specialized positions with a specific set of skills. Let's take a closer look at each unit.

a diagram showing the different positions on the football field

A team's offense is responsible for taking the ball down the field toward its opponent's end zone. To do this, the offense throws the ball from one player to another or holds the ball and runs forward. Here are the basic offensive positions.

  • Quarterback (QB) - This player throws the ball to receivers or hands it off to running backs. The quarterback is also known as the "field general," because he's the on-the-field leader.

    Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb throwing a football
    Photo courtesy The Philadelphia Eagles

  • Offensive linemen - These players provide blocking for the quarterback and running backs. Individual lineman positions include Center (C), Guards (LG/RG) and Tackles (LT/RT). The Center is located in the middle of the line. This player hikes the ball to the quarterback by bringing the ball up between his legs. The Guards flank the center. The tackles are positioned on the outside of each guard. Teams have two guards and two tackles.

  • Receivers - Receivers run down the field and catch balls thrown by the quarterback. Receivers are either wide receivers (WR) or tight ends (LTE/RTE), depending on where they are positioned on the field.

  • Running backs - Running backs take the ball from the quarterback and run up the field. Depending on the formation (arrangement) of the offensive players, a running back might be called a tailback (TB), halfback (HB) or fullback (FB).

    Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes heading downfield
    Photo courtesy Kansas City Chiefs team photographer Hank Young