Football Motion: Pre-Snap Movement in the Offense

Written By: Ryan Swingle
Updated: February 12, 2024

Motion is one of the many ways an offense can attempt to deceive the defense by moving players around the formation before the ball is snapped. The different motions used in football and how they are performed legally can be confusing to those not familiar with the idea.

Motion in football is identified as the pre-snap movement by a player aligned off the ball in the backfield while the ball is snapped. Only one player is allowed to be moving at the snap of the ball, and they can only move laterally, not toward the line of scrimmage.

This article will explain what a legal motion is and demonstrate various motions commonly used in the game.

Both the NCAA and the National Football League allow offensive players to move in motion prior to the snap. However, there are a few rules, and not anyone can go in motion.

First, only one player can go in motion at a time. Once one player motions, he must get completely set before another person can go in motion.

Second, only players who are lined up off of the line of scrimmage can go in motion. Players who are on the line of scrimmage must first get off the line of scrimmage, then they can motion. We talk more about eligible receivers in the video below.

Offensive linemen can not motion, however, they can shift.

Shifts

It is important to understand the difference between a motion and a shift when examining legal motions.

The offense is free to shift and move as many players as they want as long as they are all set for a full second before the ball is snapped.

If the offense wants to get set, and then move all of their players at the same time, they are allowed to do so, as long as the players aren’t moving at full speed. Any sudden football moves can be called a false start or illegal shift.

Motioning is different than shifting because all players are allowed to be moving before the ball is snapped in shifting. Only one player is allowed to be moving in motion, and that movement must be lateral to the line of scrimmage.

No forward movement at the time of the snap is permitted

Types of Motion In Football

Every weekend during football season, it seems that a team will find a new way to move a skilled player before the snap. While there are countless forms of motion, the ones displayed below are ones found in most playbooks.

Jet

Jet is a motion across the formation with the ball being snapped just before the player reaches the quarterback. This allows for players to perform outside run plays while already at full speed at the snap of the ball. This is also known as “Fly” motion in some terminology, especially out of the Wing-T.

jet motion

Fly

Across motion is very similar to “Jet.” The main difference is that the ball is snapped after the player crosses to the other side of the formation.

fly motion

Glide

Glide is a motion by a player in an original outside alignment towards the ball. The ball is snapped once the player is in the area of about halfway to the last attached player (or the end man on the line). This allows for momentum and speed into a crossing route, a quick change of direction into an out-breaking route, or the ability to seal the outside on a run block.

glide motion

In

This is a move into the backfield by a player from an outside alignment. There is usually a destination tag or word associated with this motion to tell the player where they are supposed to end up at the snap of the ball. For example, a gun, wing, or pistol could all be destinations for players using “In” motion.

in motion

Over

Over is usually performed by a tight end from one side of the backfield to the other. In general, it is a motion by a player in the backfield from one side of the formation to the corresponding spot on the opposite side.

over motion

Return

Return is built off of “Over” and “Across” motion. In Return, the player will cross over to the other side of the formation and then return to their original alignment at the snap of the ball.

return motion

Exit

This is a motion used by a running back as he leaves the backfield to a wide alignment. Exit is usually paired with a destination, for example, “Exit to Wide,” telling the back where they need to be in the formation.

exit motion

Orbit

Orbit is another motion for the running back. This time the back will be in the shotgun, motion behind the quarterback, and move laterally down the line of scrimmage until the ball is snapped.

orbit motion

Rocket and Laser

Rocket and Laser are the same as “Orbit” minus passing behind the quarterback. The R and L in Rocket and Laser identify the right and left directional movement for the back. They start in the shotgun and move laterally down the line of scrimmage in the designated direction until the ball is snapped.

rocket and laser motion

Slide

The slide is similar to the previous two motions but adds a forward movement before the lateral movement. The back will start in the shotgun at the hip of the quarterback, move up to the backside of the offensive line, and then laterally down the line to the side of the formation they are aligned. This does not violate motion rules as they are not moving toward the line at the snap of the ball.

slide motion

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Benefits of Motion

The reasons a team uses motion can fall under three different categories: momentum, deception, and leverage.

Momentum, or speed when the ball is snapped, allows for the player to already build up to full speed at the snap rather than starting from a set stance from a standstill.

This allows for sweep plays to hit faster off of jet motion, wheel routes to take off quicker off of orbit motion, and crack blocks to gain more force off of glide motion.

Deception is another advantage gained from motion. Flashing players across the formation can take the linebacker’s eyes off the ball and their read keys and away from the play.

Running a play that utilizes a certain motion can have the defense anticipating that play until you run a different concept off of that same motion leaving the defense confused and opened up for a big gain.

Finally, leverage gained with motion creates an edge for the offense. Motioning to a wider alignment for an easier outside release and moving into the backfield to better secure a block are advantages that motion brings to the table.

Illegal Motion & Illegal Shift

The player motioning or shifting can cause a penalty if not done properly.

Anytime a player in motion moves forward toward the line of scrimmage, in a football act, they will be flagged for illegal motion.

For instance, if a player is motioning from left to right, but starts to turn up the field too soon, they will be called for an illegal motion.

If a player is in a stance, and accidentally starts to lean forward and moves abruptly, this can also be called for an illegal shift.

These calls for illegal motion and illegal shift are called pre snap and result in a five yard penalty.

Other Notes on Motion

Coaches have gotten creative in how they call their motions and shifts. You’ll often see back position changes or backfield players moving to wide receivers as a shift.

There are endless ways to run different variations of motions, the number one thing to consider is the legality of the motion when incorporating it into the offense.

Shifts are a great way to utilize multiple player movement pre-snap, just remember to be set for one full second before the ball is snapped.

Many teams will pair the position with a shortened form of the motion for communication purposes. For example, teams that label the tight end as “Y” can use “YAC” for the Y-Across motion and “YIN” for the Y-In motion. If a team labels the running back as “T” those same principles can be applied to “TAC” (T-Across) and “TIN” (T-In) motion.

Different teams will use different terminology for the same motions. That means you could see these same motions called different names depending on the system.

Keep Learning

These motions can be found pretty much in every football game. There is a lot to learn about offense and it can be pretty overwhelming. That’s why we created the Ultimate Football Guide to make things easy for you.

Now that you’ve learned about motions in an offense, kick it up a notch and learn more about your position.

Who Created The Jet Sweep?

Motion has been around forever, but the modern jet sweep play is credited to being invented by Bob Stitts from the Colorado School of Mines in 2003. He incorporated the idea out of a shotgun formation, and it spread throughout the college ranks immediately after.

About the author 

Ryan Swingle

Coach Ryan Swingle is the current offensive line coach at Hamilton College in New York. Coach Swingle has also coached for the Cleveland Browns and Cornell University.

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