Offsides Vs Neutral Zone Infraction Vs Encroachment Penalties In Football

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: September 28, 2023

Offsides, neutral zone infraction, and encroachment are penalties that all defensive linemen avoid when lining up on scrimmage. These penalties are similar as they all happen before the snap but differ in how they’re called.

Each of these penalties is assessed on the defensive lineman or linebackers who approach the line of scrimmage.

To get a good jump off the ball and disrupt the offense’s timing, it’s essential to know the difference between the three called penalties.

Offsides In Football

The offsides penalty in football is when the defensive player lines up over the line of scrimmage while the ball is snapped.

Offsides are one of the most common, pre-snap defensive penalties between younger and older players. It can be easily fixed just through awareness of both your stance and where the ball is.

Offsides, as identified in the NFL rulebook is:

A player is offside when any part of his body is in or beyond the neutral zone or beyond a restraining line when the ball is put in play.

Penalty for being offside: Loss of five yards.

The most recent example of being offsides is Dee Ford in the playoffs against the New England Patriots.

Twitter was ruthless to Dee Ford for costing Chiefs Super Bowl appearance
via larry brown sports

As you can see, Dee Ford (defensive end at the top of the screen) is lined up over the neutral zone.

This happens mostly to defensive ends, as they don’t account for their hand or head, or they misjudge the line of scrimmage because the tackles are allowed to be veered off the line of scrimmage.

When in doubt, find a yard marker and line up a full yard behind the line of scrimmage. In this instance, the Patriots ended up throwing what would have been a game-ending interception, but the Patriots were given a second chance because of the penalty.

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Neutral Zone Infraction Penalty In Football

The neutral zone infraction penalty in football is when any defensive player moves over the neutral zone before the ball is snapped. The neutral zone is defined as 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage.

The neutral zone infraction mainly deals with players who invade the “neutral zone,” the 6 inches of space between the ball and the defender.

This call is mainly seen with an interior defensive lineman.

As defined by the NFL rulebook:

It is a Neutral Zone Infraction when:

1. a defender moves beyond the neutral zone prior to the snap and is parallel to or beyond an offensive lineman, with an unimpeded path to the quarterback or kicker, even though no contact is made by a blocker; officials are to blow their whistles immediately

2. a defender enters the neutral zone prior to the snap, causing the offensive player(s) in close proximity (including a quarterback who is under center) to react (move) immediately to protect himself (themselves) against impending contact; officials are to blow their whistles immediately.

If there is no immediate reaction by the offensive player(s) in close proximity, and the defensive player returns to a legal position prior to the snap without contacting an opponent, there is no foul. A flexed or split receiver is considered to be in close proximity if he is lined up on the side of the ball on which the violation occurs; other offensive players are considered to be in close proximity if they are within two-and-one-half positions of the defender who enters the neutral zone.

If the defender is directly over the center, a quarterback under center, the center, and the guards and tackles on both sides of the center are considered to be within close proximity; if the defender is in a gap, the two offensive players on either side of the gap are considered to be within close proximity (including a quarterback under center, if applicable)

3. a player, after he has received a warning, enters into the neutral zone. It is a foul, even if he returns to a legal position prior to the snap without contacting an opponent or causing a reaction (movement) by an offensive player in close proximity.

Penalty: For Neutral Zone Infraction: Loss of five yards from line of scrimmage. Foul is enforced prior to snap.

A real-life example of a neutral zone infraction is when a defensive player anticipates a snap count, causing an offensive player to move. The defense will always get called for neutral zone infractions before they can get back.

Defensive players such as the nose guard or defensive tackle will often get called for neutral zone infractions. Once the defensive player jumps into the neutral zone, the referee will stop the play and give a penalty to the defensive team.

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Encroachment Penalty In Football

Encroachment occurs when a defensive player enters the neutral zone and the defensive player makes contact with an offensive player or the ball before the snap. The play is immediately stopped by the referee and a 5 yard penalty is accessed.

From the NFL rulebook:

Encroachment is if a defensive player enters the neutral zone and contacts an offensive player or the ball before the snap or interferes with the ball during the snap. The play is dead immediately.

Penalty for encroachment: Loss of five yards from the line of scrimmage. The foul is enforced before the snap.

NFL Rule Book

An example of encroachment in a real-life game is when a player is tricked with a hard count, loses balance, and touches an offensive player/football.

The whistle is blown immediately, and a 5-yard penalty is assessed for Encroachment.

Difference Between Offsides, Neutral Zone Infraction & Encroachment

How do I distinguish between offsides, neutral zone infractions, and encroachment? We’ve created this short description of each penalty to help you determine each penalty:

Offsides – Lining up over the line of scrimmage, past the football.

Neutral Zone Infraction – Similar to offsides, but happens on the interior defensive line, with a clear path to the quarterback or the kicker.

Encroachment – Making contact with an offensive player or the football before the ball is successfully snapped.

All of these penalties will be blown dead by the referee and assessed a five yard penalty by the violating team.

How To Avoid Offsides Penalties On Defense

As a defensive lineman, we recommend this pre-snap checklist to ensure you’re lined up correctly.

  • Before getting in your stance, see what yard line the ball is on
  • Place your hand 1 yard behind the football
  • Make sure your head isn’t over your hand

During practice, have a teammate or coach check your stance in relation to the football and make sure everything checks out.

Get a “feel” for being onside, as you’ll do it more than 40+ times in a game.

Here’s a great quote from Massachusetts high school coach, Coach Dana Olson on Twitter regarding alignment:

What Is The Neutral Zone?

The Neutral zone is the imaginary line that spans 1 yard away from the football that separates the offensive and defensive lines.

Keep Learning

Football is a complicated game. Offsides, neutral zone infractions, and encroachment are just the beginning of many pre-snap penalties.

To learn all of them, we recommend you take our Ultimate Football Guide course. This will help to drastically improve your football IQ.

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The three penalties are often mixed up, as they all cause the same 5-yard result.

For best practice, it’s important to practice lining up behind the neutral zone in practice. This way, the play is able to get a feel for properly lining up without getting a penalty.

Let’s keep learning! Our learning center is packed with information regarding techniques, schemes, and more!

If you’re looking for more in-depth breakdowns & coaching resources, visit our coaching resource page.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.