Game Play Thursday : Pre-Snap Penalties

football, advanced, penalties, pistachios

You know those incredibly frustrating penalties that occur before the play even starts? You know how it’s hard to tell which penalty is going to be called because they all sound like the same thing? False start, offsides, neutral zone infractions, encroachment…say what?! Here’s the difference between each and how you can point them out before the ref does:

First things first, let’s answer a few foundational questions:

What is the Line of Scrimmage?

The line of scrimmage is the imaginary line where the players line up. You may be wondering, and rightly so, if it’s imaginary, how can players cross it illegally? Good question! See where the ball is placed on the field at the start of the play, directly in front of the Center (the offensive player who snaps the football)? Imagine a horizontal line coming out of both sides of the football and stretching to the sidellines – that’s the line of scrimmage. The players are always aware of where it lies.

What is the Neutral Zone?

Remember where the football is – right in front of the Center? That area – measured as the length of a football – is the neutral zone. It’s the buffer zone between the offensive and defensive lines, and only the Center can be inside of it.

Got it? Let’s move on! Here is the definition of each penalty:

False Start:


  • OFFENSIVE penalty
  • Seven players line up on the line of scrimmage for the offense. They aren’t allowed to move once they are “set” (a 2 second pause) on the line of scrimmage. If they do, it’s a false start penalty.
  • 5 yard penalty




  • DEFENSIVE penalty
  • This is called when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage
  • 5 yard penalty


Neutral Zone Infraction:


  • DEFENSIVE penalty
  • This is called when a defensive player enters the neutral zone prior to the snap
  • 5 yard penalty




  • DEFENSIVE penalty
  • This is called when a defensive player makes contact with an offensive player prior to the snap
  • 5 yard penalty


It sounds straightforward enough, right? And for the most part it is. If an offensive player jumps across the line, it’s a false start penalty. When a defensive player crosses the line it’s an offsides penalty; if he crosses into the neutral zone, it’s a neutral zone infraction. If an offensive player gets pushed or touched before the snap, it’s an encroachment penalty.

But there are sneaky things each side does to try and get penalties called on each other. Take these examples from sporting charts:

On offense, a quarterback will use a fake snap count to try to draw defensive players into the neutral zone and get a penalty called on the defense. On the defense, the team will approach the neutral zone quickly to fake a blitz or pass rush to see if it can get the offense to jump.

Quarterbacks may use a fake cadence, sometimes referred to as a “hard count”, to lure the defensive player into coming offside prior to the snap.

During games, you will often see offensive players purposely cross the neutral zone if they believe the defender is improperly positioned, or getting a jump on the snap count.  This is because the neutral zone infraction is only called if the offensive player false starts as a result of the defender.  This gamble can backfire if the defender is properly positioned.

So…watch carefully! It may look like one penalty – like an offensive player jumping across the line – when it’s actually another – a defender being lined up in the neutral zone. But now you have a working foundation of knowledge, so try to make the call before it’s announced. You’ll get better and better the more you try!