If you ever watch a game of football, you’ll notice there are a wide range of penalties that are called on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball before the quarterback snaps the ball. These are known as dead-ball fouls and a majority of these calls appear in the neutral zone.
So, what is the neutral zone in football?
The neutral zone is the area where neither the offense nor defense are allowed before the ball is snapped. The only player allowed to enter the neutral zone is the center, that way they can snap the ball to the quarterback. The neutral zone is the width of the football wherever it’s being spotted.
There are several dead ball fouls that are called as a result of movement inside the neutral zone. To a fan that’s watching the game on a television screen, a majority of these calls look similar and can go either way. But don’t worry, we’re going to explain everything you need to know about the neutral zone below!
What Is the Neutral Zone in Football?
As we mentioned above, the neutral zone is a small area on the field that no player on either team — except for the center — is allowed to enter before the ball being snapped. The only reason the center is exempt is that they need to hold the ball to snap it.
When the ball is spotted and placed before a play, the neutral zone is approximately 11 inches wide — which is the width of the football from tip to tip. Any movement outside of the person holding the ball is subject to a penalty, whether it be an offensive or defensive player.
The offensive side of the ball is referred to as ‘behind the neutral zone,’ while the defensive side of the ball is referred to as ‘beyond the neutral zone.’ The neutral zone itself is referred to as ‘in the neutral zone.’ Fans hear these phrases often from announcers throughout games.
It should be noted that the neutral zone is different during a kickoff or safety kick. In these instances, the neutral zone is 10 yards wide and separates the kicking team from the receiving team. The only two players to enter the neutral zone in this situation are the kicker and holder (if there is one).
Not only that, but the NFL also instituted a new ‘pre-game neutral zone’ rule in 2005. This neutral zone extends from one 45-yard line to the other 45-yard line. Each team is given their own ‘zone’ from the end zone to the 45-yard line to prevent players from getting into fights before a game starts. The only players allowed in-between the 45-yard lines are the kickers.
What Is a Neutral Zone Infraction?
Before the ball is snapped during a scrimmage down, fans often hear the ref call a neutral zone infraction. It’s a penalty that’s only called on the defense — meaning the offense is never called for a neutral zone infraction. It’s a penalty that drives a head coach and coordinator crazy.
There are three instances where a ref calls a neutral zone infraction. Let’s take a look:
- If a defender that’s either parallel to or beyond an offensive lineman enters the neutral zone before the ball is snapped — and they have an unimpeded path towards the quarterback or kicker — the ref will call a neutral zone infraction.
- If a defender enters the neutral zone and causes an offensive player to react or move before the ball is snapped, a neutral zone infraction is called by the ref. A false start isn’t called on the offense if the defensive player moves first. The only way this isn’t called a neutral zone infraction is if the offensive player doesn’t react and the defensive player immediately returns to their legal position.
- If a defender has already received a warning for entering the neutral zone, a penalty is called if they do it again — whether or not an offensive player moves or reacts to the infraction.
If any of these three instances occur before the ball is snapped, the defense is called for a five-yard neutral zone infraction penalty. For example, if it’s called on a 1st and 10 on the offense’s 30-yard line, the next down will be 1st and 5 on the 35-yard line. Since it’s called before the snap, it won’t be an automatic first down.
In most cases, the offense will react anytime the defense enters the neutral zone — whether or not they can control it. If they don’t react and the defender returns to a legal position, the defense only receives a warning — no penalty. If they do react, the offense gains five yards.
Neutral Zone Infraction vs Offsides
Neutral zone infraction and offsides are both considered pre-snap fouls, which are penalties that occur after the ball is set for a scrimmage down, but before the ball is snapped. While they are both called on the defense, one of the major differences between the two is that offsides is also called on the offense.
An offsides penalty is called when an offensive player or defensive player lines up or moves into the neutral zone as the ball is being snapped. This is different from a neutral zone infraction, which occurs before the ball is snapped and results in movement from the offense.
Since an offsides call happens as the ball is being snapped, the play continues. It’s also known as a free play for the offense when called on the defense. If they end up turning the ball over, they can accept the penalty and keep the ball. Likewise, they can take a shot downfield and potentially score a touchdown — which would result in them declining the penalty.
If offsides is called on the offense and they end up scoring a touchdown, the defense can accept the penalty and the touchdown won’t stand. If the penalty is accepted, it’s a five-yard penalty — whether it’s on the offense or defense.
Neutral Zone Infraction vs False Start
Where a neutral zone infraction is exclusively called on the defense and involves the neutral zone, a false start is exclusively called on the offense and doesn’t always involve the neutral zone. Both penalties are pre-snap fouls and are called before the ball is snapped.
A false start penalty occurs when an offensive player moves in such a way that simulates the start of the play before the ball is snapped. Once the offensive player assumes their position, they can’t make any sudden movements that might cause the defense to think the play is starting.
Sometimes there’s a bit of confusion when both the offensive player and defensive player react at similar times. If the defensive player enters the neutral zone and causes the offensive player to commit a false start penalty, a neutral zone infraction is called on the defense. If the false start is entirely the offensive player’s fault, it’s a false start on the offense.
If a false start is called on the offense, they won’t lose a down, but they will lose 5 yards — the same punishment as a neutral zone infraction.
Neutral Zone Infraction vs Encroachment
Both neutral zone infractions and encroachment penalties are called on the defense. A neutral zone infraction is when a defensive player enters the neutral zone before the ball is snapped, causing the offense to react. An encroachment penalty is called when a defensive player touches an offensive player before the ball is snapped.
Whether the ref calls a neutral zone infraction or an encroachment, the play is called dead immediately — meaning the ball can’t be snapped and the offense can’t run a play. The defense loses five yards on both penalties, but it won’t be an automatic first down for the offense.
What Does Behind the Neutral Zone Mean?
When you hear an announcer refer to a play as happening ‘behind the neutral zone,’ they’re referring to the offensive side of the neutral zone. For example, the offensive players aren’t allowed any movement behind the neutral zone before the ball is snapped. Any such movement would result in a false start.
What Does Beyond the Neutral Zone Mean?
When you hear an announcer refer to a play as happening ‘beyond the neutral zone,’ they’re referring to the defensive side of the neutral zone. For example, any movement made by the defense beyond the neutral zone is allowed, so long as they don’t enter the neutral zone itself. If such movement occurs, they are called for a pre-snap foul — either a neutral zone infraction or offsides (as the ball is snapped).