What Is the Line of Scrimmage in Football? A Complete Guide


Both football teams line up at the line of scrimmage.

For those that are new to football, it can be difficult to understand all the lines that seemingly move throughout the game. The biggest is the line of scrimmage, which is often the blue line on televised games.

So what is the line of scrimmage in football?

The line of scrimmage is the location of the ball during a football game. It moves as the ball moves, either forward or backward depending on the progression of a play. The line of scrimmage is where the players line up as well to start a play.

The line of scrimmage is not exactly all it seems, however. There are a lot of rules that both teams must follow, along with particular rules on advancing the ball, the history of the line scrimmage. But to start, if the line of scrimmage is always moving, then… where is the line of scrimmage?

Where Is the Line of Scrimmage?

The line of scrimmage moves as the ball moves throughout the game. The line of scrimmage is the location of the ball at any given point. When a team gains yardage on a down, the line of scrimmage moves towards the end zone. If the quarterback is sacked or the offense otherwise loses yards, the line of scrimmage moves backward.

There is a lot of importance to the line of scrimmage as it is integral for the placement of the ball at any given point in a football game. Some penalties, like defensive pass interference, are placed “at the spot of the foul”.

Or in turnovers, such as a fumble recovered by the defense, the line of scrimmage is moved to that spot. Without the line of scrimmage, we would not have much of an organized football game.

Why Is It Called the Line of Scrimmage?

The term ‘scrimmage’ actually comes from rugby. In rugby, there is a similar concept to the line of scrimmage, except that it is called a ‘scrum’–short for scrummage. It is a potato/potato situation.

Line of Scrimmage Rules

There are a lot of rules when it comes to the line of scrimmage. When a player (either offensive or defensive) breaks one of these rules, there will be a flag on the play. The result is either a dead ball or a free play, depending on who the penalty is against.

The biggest infraction at the line of scrimmage is an illegal formation, as this is one of the only penalties that actively deals with the line of scrimmage. However, a variety of other penalties can be called before the snap.

These are often neutral zone penalties committed by either team. The line of scrimmage is more used as a reference point rather than a determinate for the penalty.

Another penalty that can be called at the line of scrimmage is an illegal shift. The offense is permitted to move two or more players down the line of scrimmage twice before a ball is put in motion.

The players must come to a complete stop before the ball is snapped, and all wait one full second before the ball is snapped to move again. If two or more players are still moving when the ball is snapped, it is an illegal shift penalty.

It should be noted that the various calls and rules concerning the line of scrimmage and how many players (and which type) vary by league and level of football. For example, high school football is vastly different in rules for the line of scrimmage than the NFL, so there may be some variations as you watch different levels.

How Many Players Can Be On the Line of Scrimmage?

Both college football teams clash at the line of scrimmage.

On the offensive side of the ball, there can be seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage. Of these seven, five of them must be linemen. Offensive linemen are considered “ineligible receivers”, which means that they cannot be given the ball to make an advance down the field.

Two of the players at the line of scrimmage must be receivers–either wide receivers, tight ends or even the occasional running back– and they have to be lined up before the play can begin. All other offensive team members, including the quarterback, are in what is called the backfield, or behind the line of scrimmage.

Any other formation than this will draw an ‘illegal formation’ penalty. Now, not all seven players are directly on the line of scrimmage as it is drawn on your screen or where the ball is placed.

The seven on the line of scrimmage have to be lined up in line with the snapper’s waistline. Officials usually look for this line before calling a penalty, and there is some leeway in calling such a penalty.

Defensively, players can be lined up anywhere on their side of the line of scrimmage. This may seem like an unfair advantage. However, to combat this, there is a penalty called a neutral zone infraction that applies only to the defense and somewhat checks this freedom. Defenses are also subject to offsides and false start penalties.

Can a Quarterback Throw Past the Line of Scrimmage?

Nope. The line of scrimmage is the last point where the quarterback can throw the ball forward. After the ball itself passes the line of scrimmage, no forward pass can be made–no matter if the ball returns to the line of scrimmage.

For example, if the quarterback wants to throw the ball but ends up fumbling the ball and it goes beyond the line of scrimmage–even if the quarterback recovers it–the ball cannot be thrown down the field.

If the quarterback decides to run the ball themselves, after the ball passes the line of scrimmage, the quarterback is considered a running back and cannot throw the ball. The only option remaining is to run forward. Also, if the quarterback does this type of play and is tackled, there cannot be a penalty for roughing the passer.

What Is the Neutral Zone?

The neutral zone is the width of the football as it sits on the line of scrimmage. The only player that is allowed to have any body part in the neutral zone is the snapper, who snaps the ball into play.

When either side of the ball moves before the play is alive, it results in a penalty. There are a variety of penalties that can be called in the neutral zone. For more information on the neutral zone in football, check out this article.

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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