What Are Special Teams in Football? A Complete Guide

A player on special teams attempting to tackle the kick returner.

When it comes to football, offenses are heralded for their ability to drive the ball downfield and defenses are known to win championships. While these two units are often in the spotlight, special teams are the backbone of any winning team.

So, what are special teams in football?

Special teams is a football unit that is responsible for handling kicking, punting, and returns. They play a crucial role in changing field position, scoring points, and gaining momentum for their team. Additionally, they’re responsible for plays like field goals, extra points, and onside kicks.

The kicker and punter probably come to mind when thinking of positions on special teams, but there are others that are just as vital. To learn more about those, as well as how special teams received their name, the best special teams unit in history, and much more – keep reading!

What Are Special Teams in Football?

Special teams play a crucial role despite being on the field for only about 20% of the game. They are responsible for all plays related to the kicking game, including attempting a kick, returning a kick, or defending a kick. 

Special teams are made up of various positions, including kickers, punters, long snappers, and players involved in kick and return coverage. These players must be skilled in their respective roles, as their actions can significantly impact a team’s field position and scoring opportunities.

Some players who line up for special teams may also be part of the offensive or defensive units. Special teams play a significant but often overlooked role in determining the outcome of a game.

Why Is it Called Special Teams?

The term special teams is used because this unit is distinct from the offensive and defensive units, and is deployed during specific game situations, making it special in its purpose.

The members of special teams often have a specialized focus on their roles, such as kickers, punters, and returners. It’s not uncommon for these players to only play on special teams, reinforcing the notion that the group is set apart from the offense and defense.

Special teams can be a deciding factor in determining the outcome of a game, as they can significantly impact field position, scoring opportunities, and momentum shifts. Many NFL teams have a special teams coach who oversees the development and strategies of this unit. 

Some coaches, like Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, and Joe Judge, have started their careers as special teams coaches before advancing to head coaching positions.

Are Special Teams Important?

Despite the fact that they are only on the field for about 20% of the game, having a good special teams is invaluable. 

One of the reasons special teams are important is that they contribute to a team’s field position. A strong special teams unit is responsible for preserving a better field position for their offense and defense. By doing so, they can help their team gain an advantage over the opposition.

Special teams can also directly impact the score through field goals and extra points. A reliable placekicker is crucial for a team’s chances of winning close games. Moreover, an effective punt returner can provide scoring opportunities through long returns or even touchdowns.

When Are Special Teams Utilized?

A special teams unit kicking the ball off.


Special teams are utilized during kickoffs, which occur at the start of the game, the beginning of the second half, and after a scoring play. 

The goal of a kickoff is to either gain possession through an onside kick or to send the ball downfield, forcing the receiving team to start their offensive drive as far away as possible from their end zone. In some situations, a squib kick may also be utilized.


During a punt, special teams take the field when the offensive team is unable to gain a first down and opts to kick the ball downfield instead of attempting a field goal or going for it on fourth down. 

The purpose of punting is to increase the distance the opposing team must travel to score a touchdown or kick a field goal. Punting the ball provides better defensive positioning and reduces the chances the other team is able to score during their next possession.

Field Goals

A field goal is a play in which the kicker attempts to kick the ball between the goalposts to score three points. Field goals are often attempted when the offensive team is unable to secure a touchdown and doesn’t feel comfortable going for it on fourth down, but is within a reasonable range for the kicker to make the kick.

Extra Points

After a touchdown, special teams come into play when attempting extra points. 

The scoring team can choose to attempt a Point After Touchdown (PAT) by kicking the ball through the goalposts for one additional point, or they can elect to go for a two-point conversion by running or passing the ball into the end zone.

How Many Players Are on Special Teams?

The standard number of players on the field for a special teams play is 11, just like on offense and defense. The players on a special teams are usually a mix of offensive and defensive players, along with a few players who specialize exclusively in special teams roles.

Some of the key roles on special teams include the kicker, punter, long snapper, holder, gunner, and returner. Every player has an essential part to play in the successful execution of kicking plays, whether it’s a field goal attempt, punt, or a kickoff.

It’s crucial to remember that the number of players on special teams, or on a football team in general, can vary depending on the level of play. For instance, the NFL, College, and Youth football teams have different roster sizes, which can influence the composition of their special teams units.

Positions on Special Teams

Special teams consist of these positions: kicker, punter, holder, long snapper, gunner, returner, and members of the coverage team. Each of these positions plays a vital role in the overall effectiveness of special teams during a game.

The kicker is responsible for field goals, extra points, and kickoffs. This player must be extremely accurate and have a strong leg in order to successfully send the ball through the uprights or deep into the opponent’s territory.

Punters are responsible for kicking the ball away when the offense fails to gain a first down. On a punt, the punter has to focus not just on distance, but also on accuracy in order to pin the other team back and keep them from starting their drive with good field position

The punter also usually acts as the holder on field goal attempts.

Returners are essential for both punt and kickoff returns. A returner is important for special teams as they have the potential to gain substantial yardage or even score touchdowns with their speed, agility, and ability to evade defenders.

The long snapper specializes in snapping the ball accurately to the holder or punter during field goal attempts and punts. This player’s accuracy and speed are vital for the success of these plays, as just a split second or misplaced snap could result in an unsuccessful attempt or even a turnover.

Gunners are vital members of the coverage team, focusing on getting downfield as quickly as possible to either down the ball inside the opponent’s 20-yard line or to tackle the returner. These players are fast and tenacious, frequently shedding blocks and scanning the field to locate and neutralize the returner.

Do Special Teams Players Play Other Positions?

A holder receiving the snap for a field goal attempt.

While some players solely focus on special teams, others may also play positions on offense or defense. It’s important to note that these multi-position players typically possess a specific skill set, making them valuable assets to their teams.

In many cases, the members of special teams units may also be backup players for offensive or defensive positions. This dual role allows them to contribute in a variety of situations and gives their teams more options. 

For instance, a linebacker might also play as a blocker on the punt return team, or a wide receiver could serve as a punt returner. These versatile players provide their teams with depth and flexibility, allowing coaches to make adjustments during the game as needed.

The frequency of multi-position players on special teams can vary, depending on factors such as team strategy, player capabilities, and injuries. Some coaches prefer to have dedicated special teams players, while others might emphasize the importance of versatility.

Best Special Teams of All-Time

One of the best special teams units in NFL history was the 2002 New England Patriots. While they never ranked No. 1 in special-teams defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), they consistently ranked in the top eight for seven years, according to ESPN.

Even individual players can stand out. Mark Moseley, a placekicker for the Washington Redskins, is the only special teams player to win an MVP. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are Special Teams Offense or Defense?

Special teams in football are neither offense nor defense; they are a separate unit responsible for plays involving the kicking game. 

This includes kicking, returning, and defending kicks. Although they are only on the field for roughly 20% of the game, special teams play a crucial role in determining the outcome.

What Is an Onside Kick?

An onside kick is a play used by the kickoff team to regain possession of the ball. The kicker intentionally kicks the ball short, hoping to catch the receiving team off-guard and recover the ball after it has traveled at least 10 yards. 

This technique is often used when a team is trailing late in the game and needs possession to have a chance at winning.

How Much Do Special Teams Players Make in the NFL?

The salaries of special teams players in the NFL vary depending on their position and experience. Kickers and punters typically earn more than other special teamers, with some earning over $1 million per year. 

Meanwhile, gunners, return specialists, and other niche positions usually have lower salaries, often starting at the league minimum (currently around $660,000) and increasing with experience or performance incentives.

What Is a Gunner in Football?

A gunner is a special teams player whose primary responsibility is to cover punts and kickoffs. Their main objective is to tackle the returner or force them out of bounds as quickly as possible. Gunners must possess exceptional speed, agility, and tackling skills to excel in this role.

What Is Field Position?

Field position refers to the location on the field where a team starts their offensive possession. The effectiveness of the special teams unit in kicking, returning, and defending kicks has a significant impact on this field position. By securing a better field position, a team can reduce the distance necessary to score and increase their chances of success.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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