What are Special Teams in Football?

what are special teams in football

Last updated on October 29th, 2023 at 10:05 am

In American football, special teams refer to the different squads on the field during kicking plays. Many players who typically take part in offensive drives are the same players who line up for a kickoff or field goal. However, there is a specialization for these roles, which makes them essential for a successful football game. 


The Four Types of Special Teams in Football

There are four fundamental types of special team plays in football. All of these plays are kicking plays, though they each have specific differences. In addition to the offensive side, there’s usually a defensive counterpart to the specific special teams unit that is either defending against the play or returning it. 



what is an onside kick

Every football game starts with a kickoff. The unique part of this kicking play is that the ball is free-standing on a tee, unlike every kicking play where it’s snapped to a holder or punter. In a kickoff, the kicker will put the ball on the tee around the 35-yard line and kick it towards the opposing end zone to get it as close to the goal line as possible. If the ball ends in the opposing team’s end-zone, it results in a touchback, which puts the line of scrimmage at the 25-yard line. 


During each kickoff, there is a kickoff return. This special team’s unit includes defenders who usually are 10 feet from the tee. There are also two players near the end zone who are designated kickoff returners. These players can serve other roles and maybe wide receivers, cornerbacks, or running backs. 



nfl punt

Offensive teams usually punt the ball on fourth down during an offensive drive to avoid turning over the ball on their half of the field. Unlike a kickoff or other kicking plays, the punter handles the ball before kicking it. At the start of the play, the long-snapper will snap the ball back to the punter, who will catch it and then drop it as he kicks it. 


The defense lines up similarly for a kickoff. However, the defensive line will have a punt returner in the backfield. The punt returner can return the ball after catching it or wave it dead as part of a fair catch. As in kickoffs, if the punting team kicks the ball too far to land in or past the end zone, the play will cause a touchback, and the ensuing drive will start at the 25-yard line.


Field Goal

Field Goal

A field goal unit is a specific team group that comes when the offense attempts a field goal. This play is usually more condensed than a punt or kickoff and involves the kicker and a holder, who may also serve as the team’s punter. While most offensive lines will participate in the field goal unit, they may replace the center with a designated long snapper. 


The field goal unit is often one of the most successful scoring units in football. It’s not unusual for placekickers to be among the highest-scoring players on any given football team. The 25 NFL players with the most points are all kickers.


Extra Point

Extra Point

Most of the players who participate in the field goal unit will also line up for extra points after a touchdown. However, since some teams may opt for a two-point conversion during an extra point attempt, it’s not unusual for the quarterback or backup quarterback to line up with the extra point squad. 


When defending against a field goal or extra point, the defensive formation may change to have more linebackers on the defensive line. Linebackers tend to be taller than other players on the defense, which makes them ideal for swatting down balls that may make it through the uprights. 


The Importance of Special Teams in Football

Since special teams are often a routine part of the game, fans might underestimate their impact. However, the special teams’ units have a tremendous responsibility as the game develops. For example, the goal of a kick returner is to run the ball up field and attempt to get a good field position from where the team can start its offensive drive. 


Similarly, defensive players have an essential role in preventing a team from scoring points on kicking plays. Blockers can swat down a field goal and extra-point attempts that can be instrumental in close games. 


Special teams often have additional kick packages in their playbooks. For example, during a kickoff, a team can attempt an onside kick. The onside kick is usually a short kick to the side of the field with a design to be quickly recovered by the kicking team. A successful onside kick can give an offense two back-to-back attempts at scoring, which can help them overcome a large point deficit.


NFL teams often have a special teams coach that is directly responsible for special teams’ plays. Since coaching this group of players often makes a coach well-rounded, they often become head coaches later in life. Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, and Joe Judge are examples of current NFL head coaches that started as special teams coaches. 


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