Glossary of Football Terms

UpdatedFriday November 8, 2019 byBaystate conference.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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 offense.



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.



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.


The term used to describe the function of the running back, i.e. what he does with  the ball.



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.



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 down.


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.



A penalty assessed against an offensive player, in which said player blocks a defensive player from behind.



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 suspended.


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.



Term which refers to a forward pass which is caught legally (in-bounds) by a receiver.



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.



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.



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 defenders.


Dead Ball

A term which refers to a play being over and also that the ball cannot be advanced.



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 backfield.



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.



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.



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.



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 conversion."


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.



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.



An object thrown by the referee to indicate a penalty is coming. Flags are bright yellow.


An offensive player who is a pass receiver. Also known as wide receiver.



An area close to the line of scrimmage between the hash marks and the sideline. Running backs catch many passes in the flat.



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 sprinted downfield.



An offensive or defensive arrangement of players, aligned in a specific way.



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.



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.



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.



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."



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. 



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.



 An 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 hang time.



The action of the ball being given to another player, most often the running back.



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 play.



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 crew.



The player, usually the punter or backup quarterback, who holds the snapped ball so that the field goal kicker can kick it.



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.


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.



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.



A forward pass by the offense that is caught by a member of the other team's defense.



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 the overtime.



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.



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 offensive player.



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.



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 two tackles.


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.


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.



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.



A play which describes a quarterback having a choice (option) of running or passing the ball.



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.



A tossing of the ball from the quarterback to the running back.



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.



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.



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.


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.



The player who punts the ball.



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 decision-makers.


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.



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.


The act of catching a kicked ball and running back with it towards the opponents' end zone.



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 accelerate quickly.


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.


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.


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.



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.



A small lightweight running back whose assets are speed and quickness rather than size and weight.



A word used to represent formations, and how to use them.



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.



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.



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.


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 level.



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 aggressive manner.



The act of the ball being hiked to either the quarterback, or holder, or punter.



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.



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 tackling.


Strong Side

The point of the offensive line where the tight end lines up.



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.



Bringing in one player to replace another player.



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.



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.



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.



Term which describes a defensive recovery of a fumble, or an interception.



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.


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.



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.



The point of attack where the linemen butt heads and attempt to gain physical control.



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.



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.


A quick running play whereby the back cuts, or veers, away from the pursuing defenders.


Weak Side

The point of the offensive line opposite the tight end.



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.



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, mobile quarterback.


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.)