Game Play Thursday : Pre-Snap Penalties

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!

Wait…What Just Happened : The Tuck Rule

A controversial call was made this weekend in the Steelers at Giants game regarding the tuck rule. So let’s spend some time dissecting the various rules concerning a quarterback’s handling of a football that hits the ground and how it all relates to the tuck rule.

Ok, first things first. Let’s define what we’re talking about:

Imagine the quarterback drops back to pass. In the process, he loses the football. There are two ways he can do so:

1. A Fumble: This is when a quarterback (or any player, but for our purposes, a QB) accidentally loses control of the football. He could drop it, never get a good hold on it after it is snapped, or have it jarred/bumped/hit by another player while he is NOT in the process of making a forward pass (we’ll get to that later). If a defensive player recovers the loose ball, it’s a turnover and the defense now has possession of the football where the turnover occurred. (Fumbles in the offensive team’s endzone are considered touchbacks, in which the ball is brought out to the 20 yard line.)

2. An Incomplete Pass: This is when a quarterback’s arm is in the process moving forward to make a pass (VERY important!) and the ball hits the ground. As long as his arm was making a forward motion and the ball hits the ground, the pass is incomplete and the offense retains possession. (If a defensive player catches the pass before it hits the ground, it’s an interception.)

So when it comes to quarterbacks losing the football: fumble = bad, incomplete pass = better.

Enter: the tuck rule. As per the NFL rule book:

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

So, basically, the tuck rule is every quarterbacks saving grace. The key word in the rule is “intentional.” Even if the arm isn’t fully extending forward, if it appears that the quarterback had the intent to throw a forward pass, it’ll be called an incomplete pass via the tuck rule. This is better for the quarterback because if it’s an incomplete pass, the offense retains possession. If it had been ruled a fumble and the defense recovered it, it would be a turnover and the defense would get possession.

photo credit : the sports quotient

The most famous tuck rule incident – and it’s inaugural enforcement – occurred in a divisional playoff game between the Patriots and the Raiders in 2002. It was called in the Patriots favor. They ended up winning that game…and the Super Bowl that followed. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, ESPN has a great recap with player’s perspectives a decade later.)

Keep an eye out next weekend, you’ll be sure to see a few fumbles and incomplete passes. If the tuck rule comes up, you’ll be able to explain it for everyone else!

Game Play Thursday : 8 in The Box

I’m in the process of trying to really learn the game. As in, I totally understand everything that is going on on the field, everything the announcers say, what the lingo and play calls mean, ALL of it. It’s an uphill climb, but I’m loving it!

So I wanted to start sharing with you all the little bits of knowledge I’m picking up throughout the week. We’ll call it Game Play Thursdays.

Today, it’s an explanation of something I kept hearing but had no idea what it meant: having “8 in the box.” Here’s the breakdown:


  • 8 refers to the number of defensive players who are occuying “the box”
  • The box is the defensive area directly across from the offensive line (the 5 man line consisting of the Left Tackle, Left Guard, Center, Right Guard, and Right Tackle)
  • Usually, there are 7 defensive players in the box – linemen and linebackers.
  • When a defense is trying to stop a running play or wants to blitz the QB, they might have another defensive player – usually the Strong Safety (the Safety who is playing on the same side of the field as the Tight End) – come down from his usual position upfield where he defends against the pass and “shake down” into the box. This gives the defense the advantage of having an extra man in coverage near the line of scrimmage.


Here’s a visual, thanks to a screen shot from FOX and a breakdown on Bleacher Report (I just added the numbers) of 8 in the box:

Roman Harper, the strong safety, is the “8th” in the box, and his path is identified by the red line in front of him.

This play ended up not going very well for the Saints. RGIII, the Redskins QB, totally sold the run. But it was a fake – he was actually going to throw it to his Wide Receiver, Pierre Garcon, down the field. And he did. And Garcon caught it. BOOM.

And thus the disadvantage of bringing 8 in the box: less protection against passing plays.

Does any of that make sense?

Wait…What Just Happened? : Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass

And here we welcome in a new feature: Wait…What Just Happened? Because something weird happens every week in the NFL, and learning about it will help us be able to spot it again the next time it happens.

This week, it’s the case of the Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass penalty that ended the Saints vs. Creamsicles Bucs game. Here’s the play:

Here’s the breakdown of why that didn’t count as a touchdown…it’s an explanation with several moving parts and it’s truly one of the more ridiculous NFL rules:

Step 1: Josh Freeman left “the pocket” – the imaginary box marked off by where the five offensive lineman are playing. Because Freeman was operating outside of the pocket, the Saints defender (Robinson) shoved the receiver (Williams) out of the endzone legally. I’m not going to pretend to know why that’s defined as a legal move, but it is. Let’s just go with it.

Step 2: Williams came back into the endzone after being pushed out of bounds. He caught the touchdown with both feet in bounds, but because he was the first player to touch the football after re-entering the field of play, it was an offensive penalty. Specifically: an Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass penalty.

Here’s the technical explanation from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 8 of the NFL’s official rule book:

Illegal Touching of a Forward Pass. It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass (legal or illegal), thrown from behind the line of scrimmage:

(a) is first touched intentionally or is caught by an ineligible offensive player; or

(b) first touches or is caught by an eligible receiver who has gone out of bounds, either of his own volition or by being legally forced out of bounds, and has re-established himself inbounds.

So, basically, a receiver can’t come back in bounds after being out of bounds and be the first person to touch the football. Incidentally, if the pass had been tipped and then caught, it would have been a legal touchdown.

This is the type of stuff that makes football an endeavor in lifetime learning. (And this is why the replacement refs had such a hard job…can you imagine learning all of the rules and all of their odd nuances in just a few weeks?! Tall order.)