A glossary of terms and football jargon you’ll need to understand the NFL | CNN (2024)

A glossary of terms and football jargon you’ll need to understand the NFL | CNN (1)

The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals line up over the NFL logo in the first half during Super Bowl LVI on February 13 at SoFi Stadium.


Do you ever sit and watch sports and think: “What on earth is going on?” Do you ever feel excluded from a conversation about sports because you don’t understand what is being talked about?

Learning a new sport is tough. Even knowing all the words and phrases in a sport you love is hard too – let’s not even bother getting started with a conversation on soccer’s offside rule…

So, with the 2022 NFL season kicking off, we’ve compiled a list of terms and words which are commonplace in the sport’s parlance that we think you should know.

With these in your armory, whether it be with family, friends or colleagues, you’ll be able to understand what’s going on and wow others – or at least hold your own – with your diverse knowledge of the US’ favorite game.

The basics

Backfield: This is split into offensive and defensive sections. The offensive backfield is the area behind the offensive line where the quarterback and running back line up. The defensive backfield is the area behind the defensive line where linebackers and defensive backs line up.

Blitz: A defensive tactic where more than four defenders, sometimes including linebackers or defensive backs who typically do not pass the line of scrimmage, choose to run full tilt towards the opposing quarterback rather than cover the backfield (see above) in an attempt to tackle or take possession of the ball.

Down: The action stage of the game when the ball is active until it is declared dead and play stops. Most downs begin with a snap from the center position, but can begin with kick offs and punts. An offense has four downs or fewer to advance 10 yards from the original position of the ball on first down to earn another first down and maintain possession for another potential set of four downs. Teams begin with first down, and each down afterwards is numbered – second, third and fourth. If an offense fails to make the required 10 yards of forward progress from the first down position, possession changes to the other team.

End zone: The area at each end of the field which teams attempt to reach to score a touchdown. Players must either catch the ball inside or carry the ball into the opponent’s end zone which measures 10 yards by 53 ⅓ yards.

Extra point: After scoring a touchdown, a team can choose to attempt a kick, equivalent to a 33-year field goal, through the upright goalposts at each end of the field to earn one additional point.

Field goal: A kick from a placekicker which travels through the upright goalposts earns a team three points. It can be attempted at any point in a team’s four downs, but is usually taken when a team is down to its fourth down and doesn’t believe a touchdown is possible. The longest field goal in NFL history was made by Justin Tucker of the Baltimore Ravens in 2021. Tucker successfully converted a 66-yard field goal, which bounced off the crossbar and over, as time expired to hand the Ravens a 19-17 win against the Detroit Lions.

A glossary of terms and football jargon you’ll need to understand the NFL | CNN (2)

Harrison Butker kicks the game-tying field goal for the Kansas City Chiefs against the Buffalo Bills at the end of the fourth quarter to send it in to overtime in the AFC Divisional game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 23.

Fumble: When a player, who is in control of the football, either drops it or the opposing team knocks it loose – and said player isn’t deemed as already being on the ground and ruled down by contact. Once a player fumbles, either the offense or defense can recover. If the defense recovers, it is considered a turnover.

Interception: When a defending player catches a forward pass by the offense, usually the quarterback, resulting in a change of possession.

Line of scrimmage: The virtual lines upon which the offensive and defensive linemen position themselves. The offensive line extends from sideline to sideline and is marked from the forward point of the ball after a referee has spotted it. Players cannot pass their respective lines until the ball is snapped.

Offensive line: The five players designated to protect the quarterback at all costs – particularly on passing plays. However, these same guardians open holes for running backs to run through. Every offensive line has a center, who snaps the ball to begin a down (see above), two guards and two tackles – although more members of the offense can form a part of the offensive line.

Penalty: If a team or player are deemed to have broken the laws of the game, they will be assessed a penalty. These could come in the form of a yardage penalty or the loss of down. When a penalty is assessed, an official will throw a yellow flag onto the field.

Pocket: The area that is formed around the quarterback by his offensive line to prevent a defensive player from sacking him.

Red zone: The nickname for the area spanning the last 20 yards an offense has to move to score a touchdown – from the defense’s 20-yard line to the goal line.

Then Dallas QB Tony Romo leads the Cowboys in the red zone against the Detroit Lions on October 2, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.

Rushing: When a ball is advanced by an offensive player running with the ball in his hands, it is called rushing.

Sack: When a defensive player tackles the quarterback, while the ball is in his hands, behind the line of scrimmage for a loss of yardage.

Safety: If an offensive player is tackled in their own end zone by a defensive player, a safety is awarded and the defensive team earns two points. The same applies if an offensive player runs out of bounds from their own end zone (made famous by Lions QB Dan Orlovsky) or if an offense commits a penalty in its own end zone. After a safety, play is restarted by a punt from the team which conceded the safety, meaning the team who earned two points also regains possession of the ball.

Snap: The action which begins play from scrimmage. For a snap to take place, the center – or in some instances, the long snapper – passes the ball between his legs to the quarterback, punter or holder. In rare cases, the center can direct snap to a running back, wide receiver or tight end.

Special teams: The 22 players on the field during punts, field goals, extra points and kick offs. Specialist players will feature in each phase, such as specialist punters, place kickers and kick off returners.

Touchdown: Worth six points, a touchdown is scored if a player carries the ball across the goal line or catches the ball in the opponent’s end zone.

Turnover: A delightful pastry often stuffed with a fruit filling – err, we digress. When a defensive player gains possession of the ball after the offensive team loses it often via a fumble or interception.

Two-point conversion: After a scoring a touchdown, a team has the option of running a single play from the defense’s two-yard line to earn two points, instead of one point via an extra-point kick. The two-point conversion is complete if the ball is carried over the goal line or if it is caught in the end zone, similar to scoring a touchdown.

The nitty gritty and slang

Audible: When a quarterback changes the original play called in the huddle to a different one at the line of scrimmage.

Encroachment: A defensive penalty for when, before the snap, a defensive player enters the neutral zone – the area which players line up across before the snap.

Gridiron: The field of play.

Hail Mary: A long pass thrown by a quarterback (most of the time) towards a group of receivers in the hopes of scoring a touchdown. An act of desperation at the end of games or halves, it tends to be used by a trailing team as a last-gasp attempt to level the scores or win a game. The term is a reference to a Catholic prayer, and although it had been used in football parlance since the 1930s, it shot to prominence in 1975 when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw a game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson, saying afterwards: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”

Hard count: A technique used by quarterbacks by varying their audible snap count, instructing the center when to snap the ball, in an attempt to make defensive players inadvertently encroach into the neutral zone and therefore, move the offense forward five yards as a result of a penalty.

Hurry-up offense: When an offensive team chooses to run several plays in a row without huddling to confer. Usually used when time is running out, the aim is to use the least amount of time to run as many plays as possible.

Icing the kicker: The act of calling a timeout just as the opposing team’s kicker is about to take a consequential kick. The tactic is utilized with the hope of disrupting the kicker’s timing and templated process. The theory is that the added time will put more pressure on the kicker to consider the consequence of the situation.

In the trenches: The line of scrimmage where the offensive and defensive linemen battle at the snap of the ball.

A glossary of terms and football jargon you’ll need to understand the NFL | CNN (4)

The line of scrimmage of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Carolina Panthers during the first half at Raymond James Stadium on January 9.

Locker room guy: Not necessarily a player who features in every game, but one who is vital to the team’s success, providing moral support on and off the gridiron (see above). Often an older player, the added experience helps pick teams up after defeats or keeps a team focused after a victory.

Onside kick: A kick off deliberately taken short in the hopes of the kicking team retaining possession of the football. Usually used at the end of games by trailing teams.

Pick-six: An interception (pick) which is run back for a touchdown.

Pigskin: A nickname for the actual football. The nickname is rumored to have come from the story that the first footballs were made of an inflated pig’s bladder encased in a pig hide or similar tough leather. Nowadays, they are made of cowhide.

Pooch-kick: When a kicker deliberately chooses not to kick off with full force with the aim of denying a potential run back by a dangerous returner. The ball often finds itself landing short – in and around blockers who rarely ever touch a ball during the season, let alone a game. Typically used at the end of halves or games, the offensive team concedes yardage in the hopes it will wrap up a result.

Shotgun: When the quarterback elects to receive the snap several steps behind the center.

Victory formation: When a team is looking to hold onto a lead and run the clock down, the team’s quarterback will immediately kneel after the snap, allowing time to run down. Usually used by a winning team at the end of halves or games.

CNN’s David Close and Homero de la Fuente contributed to this report.

A glossary of terms and football jargon you’ll need to understand the NFL | CNN (2024)
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