The “line of scrimmage” is an important concept in American football at all levels, including professional football. Until I started researching this topic today, I thought there was only one “line of scrimmage” that occurred where the ball is placed to begin a play. I guess there’s truth to the old adage that you learn something new every day!
It turns out there are two lines of scrimmage: one for the offense, and one for the defense. The “line of scrimmage” is the line behind which the offense and the defense must line up to start the play. The line of scrimmage for the offense is perpendicular to the point of the football closest to them, and the line of scrimmage for the defense is usually less than a yard away from the tip of the ball closest to them. The space between the lines of scrimmage for the offense and the defense is called “the neutral zone.” Only the center, the member of the offensive line responsible for getting the ball to the quarterback or kicker once play starts, can be in the neutral zone until the play begins.
A play begins as soon as the ball is “snapped” – that is, thrown backwards from the ground by the center to the quarterback (or, if the play is a punt, to the punter). There are (at least) four kinds of penalties that can occur at or near the line of scrimmage: encroachment, false start, neutral zone infraction and offside. Each of these penalties are five yard penalties, which means that the ball moves five yards in the direction the team not making the penalty wants it to go. So, for example, if a defensive player crosses the line, the ball is placed five yards closer to the goal for the offense and the down is replayed. Similarly, if it is an offensive player that crosses, the ball is placed five yards farther from the goal and the down is replayed. In addition, the five yards are added to (if the offense makes the penalty) or subtracted from (if the defense makes a penalty) the 10 yards the offense has to make to get a first down.
In the example below, the Miami Dolphins are on offense, and the New York Jets are on defense. The ball is on the Jets 40 yard line. It is third down, and the Miami Dolphins have already moved forward seven yards in the previous two downs, leaving them with three more yards to win their next first down.
If a member of the New York Jets is penalized for being offside, then the Jets have given away five yards. This means two things: 1) Miami gets a first down, since it only had three more yards to go, and 2) the ball is moved to the Jets 35 yard line and play resumes.
If a member of the Miami Dolphins is penalized for being offside, and is called for it, then the Dolphins have to add five yards to the distance they need to travel. This means that 1) the Dolphins now have to move 8 yards instead of three to get their first down, and 2) the ball is moved to the Jets 45 yard line and third down is replayed.
A team can choose to decline a penalty and accept the result of a play instead. This is a strategic call by a team. The offense, if it recognizes that the defense has committed one of the four line penalties and the play is not stopped immediately, receives what amounts to a free play – if the offense makes something happen in spite of the defense’s penalty, ie., they run a play that gains them more than five yards, the team can choose to decline the penalty and take the yardage gained. If they weren’t able to get more than five yards, they accept the penalty and re-do the down.
The defense’s decision as to whether to accept the penalty can be a more difficult decision. For example, if it is third down, and a player on offense jumps offside, the defense may wish to decline the penalty to force the offense on to fourth down, or if the offense is within field goal range, or for other field position reasons, the defense may choose to accept the penalty and force the offense to travel the additional five yards
The referee uses hand signals as well as his microphone to announce the penalty. If he puts his hands on his hips, he is signaling that an encroachment, offside or neutral zone infraction has occurred. If he is rolling his arms around in front of his body, than that indicates a false start (as well as one other penalty we are not talking about here.)
The four penalties differ in subtle ways.
If a player on either side crosses the line of scrimmage before ball is snapped and makes contact with an opposing player, he has committed encroachment.
- False Start
A false start occurs when an offensive lineman gets set for the play, then moves before the ball is snapped.
- Neutral zone infraction
A neutral zone infraction occurs when a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the play is snapped and runs towards the quarterback or kicker even though he is not stopped by a blocker. In addition, a neutral zone infraction occurs if the defensive player jumps into the neutral zone before the ball is snapped and in doing so causes an offensive player to react immediately to that motion before the ball is snapped.
A player is offside if any part of his body is beyond his line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
Before a play begins, the offensive and defensive players are required to line up at their respective lines of scrimmage. The offense’s line of scrimmage runs from sideline to sideline from the tip of the ball closest to them, while the defense’s line of scrimmage runs from sideline to sideline about a yard away from the tip of the ball closest to them. The space between the two lines of scrimmage is called “the neutral zone.” Players are expected to remain at or behind their lines of scrimmage until the ball is snapped. If they violate this rule, then their team is penalized five yards. The names for the penalties involving line of scrimmage violations are encroachment, false start, neutral zone infraction and offside.
Until next time, may your games be exciting and your team win!