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What are Special Teams in Football?

If you’re a typical football fan, you probably reduce the game to two units: the offense and the defense.

However, an equally essential yet vastly underrated third unit exerts tremendous influence on the football game’s outcome: special teams.

When we talk about special teams in the NFL, we are referring to the units involved in kicking plays. Special teams units are not considered part of the offense or the defense. [1]

In this article, I will explore the role of special teams in football, identify which players comprise special teams, and identify those players most crucial to special teams’ success.

Key Takeaways

  • Special teams are eleven-player personnel units on the field for all kicking plays: kickoffs, punts, field goals, and extra points.
  • Most of the players assigned to special teams are second and third-string offensive and defensive players.
  • However, the most valuable players on special teams are those who do not serve as backup offensive and defensive players but only perform on special teams: kickers, punters, long snappers, and holders.

What are Special Teams?

Special teams refer to those units that take the field during kicking plays. 

Each special team unit consists of eleven special team players.

There are four main areas of the game in which special teams are involved: kickoffs, punts, field goals, and extra points.


Furthermore, each of the aforementioned areas involves two separate units.

For instance, kickoffs involve the kicking and returning teams, punts involve the punting and returning teams, and so on. [2]

I will cover each special team unit in greater detail below.

Who are Special Teams Players?

A football roster is limited to 53 players.

This limitation renders it impossible to carry eleven starting offensive players, eleven starting defensive players, and more than twenty backup players and still maintain room for eleven additional special team players.

As a result, of the eleven special teams players, almost all are backups on either offense or defense at other positions.

Nonetheless, a few specialty players only play on special teams, never appearing on the field for an offensive or defensive snap. [3]

How and when these specialists perform their tasks provides excellent insight into the special teams they anchor.

Special Team Specialists


Kickers kick the ball on kickoffs, field goals, and extra points. The ball is kicked off of a tee for kickoffs, while for field goals and extra points, the ball is kicked as it is held in place by the holder. 


The punter stands fifteen yards behind the line of scrimmage, catches the fifteen-yard snap from the long snapper, and then kicks the ball to the other team on fourth down.

Long Snapper

The long snapper is the special teams center who snaps the ball on punts and kicks. He snaps the ball between his legs a distance of fifteen yards to the punter on a punt or seven yards to the holder on field goals and extra points.


The holder kneels on the ground seven yards behind the long snapper on field goals and extra points, receives the seven-yard snap from the long snapper, and rotates the football, so the laces are away from the kicker in preparation for the field goal or extra point. In the NFL, the punter functions as the holder. [4]

The below video simplifies the special team specialists and the units on which they serve:

Common Scenarios where Special Teams are Involved  


A kickoff occurs to start play for the first or second half and after any scoring play. 

On kickoffs, the kicker strikes the football positioned on a tee at the 35-yard line, and the kick must travel at least 10 yards to be legal. 

Players on the kicking team may only cross the line of scrimmage after the kick. 

For most kickoffs, the goal of the kicking team is to pin the return team deep into their territory. 

When the kicker boots a kickoff, the returner catches it and runs toward the opposing team’s end zone. Kick returners are usually speedy and often wide receivers or defensive backs. [5, 6]


Punts are executed by the offense on fourth down if they are beyond the field-goal range or there is a significant distance from the line of scrimmage to the first-down marker. 

This makes sense because if the team were in field-goal range, they would send out the kicker in lieu of the punter in an attempt to add three points to their score.

In addition, it would be foolish to run a play instead of punting the football if the offense faced a fourth down while positioned five yards from the line to gain.

In this situation, were the offense unable to gain five yards for the first down, they would turn the ball over on downs to the opposing team.

The more prudent option would be to punt the ball and force the opponent to begin their offensive possession forty yards deeper than if the football were turned over on downs.

During a punt, the punter receives the snap from the long snapper fifteen yards behind the line of scrimmage, drops the ball, and kicks it to the punt returner before the ball hits the ground. 

The punt returner is often the same player who served as the kick returner during the previous section on kickoffs.

The punt returner then likely catches the football and runs toward the punting team’s end zone. [7]

The below picture of a punt illustrates the long snapper and punter working in concert:

Field Goals and Extra Points

Field goals and extra points are also the responsibilities of special teams.

A field goal is when the offensive team lines up along the line of scrimmage with their place-kicking unit and kicks the ball through the goalposts in the opposition’s end zone. A field goal in football is worth three points. [8]

An extra point refers to the point that is earned after a team score a touchdown. An extra point results when the kicker boots the ball through the goalposts in the opposition’s end zone. The total points earned for a touchdown plus the extra point is seven.

Proper execution of a field goal or extra point occurs as the holder kneels behind the long snapper and smoothly receives the seven-yard snap. The holder then rotates the football, orients the laces away from the kicker, and the kicker drives the football through the uprights. [9]

The defense employs their field goal and extra point prevention special teams to block the kicks; however, this practice is rarely successful.

The below picture illustrates the positioning of the long snapper, holder, and kicker while executing a field goal. The positions would be identical were this an extra point:

While special teams participate in only 20% of the snaps, they are responsible for 35% of a team’s offensive production.

This should come as little surprise, as kickers are usually the team’s leading scorers.

After your favorite team’s kicker hits a game-winning field goal at the gun, I want you to appreciate the importance of special teams.


  3. Football 101 | Chapter 7 | Special Teams

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