If you are just getting introduced to football, pre-snap defensive penalties can all seem like the exact same thing. Hearing the referees refer to them as different penalties can be a bit confusing and seem trivial. What exactly is the difference between offsides vs encroachment vs neutral zone infractions.
Offsides is when a player is in the neutral zone at the same time the ball is snapped.
Encroachment is when a defensive player makes contact with an offensive player before the snap.
Neutral zone infraction is when a defender jumps into the neutral zone pre-snap in a way that causes the play to be blown dead (explained in further detail below). For example, jumping into the neutral zone and causing an offensive player to react early.
These penalties are all 5 yard penalties on the defense. (source)
Here it is explained in more detail:
- If a defensive player jumps early while the ball is being snapped, it will be offsides.
- If a defensive player is lined up in the neutral zone at the time of the snap, it will be offsides and usually described by referees as “Offsides – Player lined up in the neutral zone”.
- If a defensive player jumps early before the ball is snapped, and makes contact with an offensive player, it will be encroachment.
- If a defensive player jumps early before the ball is snapped, does not make contact with an offensive player, but does cause an offensive player to react early, it will be a neutral zone infraction.
In general, these 3 penalties are very similar and all result in 5 yard penalties for the defense.
Let’s discuss the nuances and small differences regarding these specific penalties so that you have a better understanding the differences between offsides vs neutral zone infraction vs encroachment.
Offsides in Football
Offsides is when a player is in the natural zone at the time of the snap. (Examples)
The penalized defender may, perhaps, be moving (for example he started too early before the ball was snapped, and so when the ball was snapped he had already crossed into the neutral zone), or still in his stance (meaning he simply lined up his stance in the neutral zone, so when the ball was snapped he was in violation).
One way a quarterback gets a player to jump offsides is to use a “hard count”, which we discuss in length at the bottom of the article.
One major, specific difference regarding a penalty for offsides vs encroachment and neutral zone infractions is when an offsides penalty flag is thrown, the play is allowed to go on and the penalty is assessed after the play is over.
The offense has the choice at that point to either accept the result of the play or to accept the penalty. If they accept the penalty, 5 yards is assessed from the previous line of scrimmage.
If the penalty is accepted, the down is not counted against the offense, so if it was 2nd and 10 before the penalty, it is now 2nd and 5. If the offense had 5 or less yards to gain on the previous play, they will be rewarded a first down.
The only exception that results in the offsides play being blown dead is when the offsides creates a free runner towards the quarterback. To protect player safety, these types of offsides are blown dead immediately because the defender is “unabated to the quarterback”.
Encroachment in Football
The difference between offsides vs encroachment is usually one of the harder things for fans to understand in football. What is encroachment in football?
Encroachment is when a defensive player actually makes contact with an offensive player before the snap. (Examples)
This usually only happens when a player jumps across the line of scrimmage because a quarterback is able to get them to jump with a hard count. This can also happen when players are trying to time the snap count and get it wrong.
The main difference between encroachment vs offsides is when an encroachment penalty happens, the play is called dead immediately. They don’t allow the play to go on because it is putting the offensive players at risk for injury. The defense is assessed a 5 yard penalty from the previous line of scrimmage.
Neutral Zone Infraction in Football
Encroachment vs Neutral Zone Infraction comes down to a very small difference: was the offensive player touched by the defender. If the defender who jumped early makes contact with the offensive player, it is encroachment. If they do not make contact with the offensive player, but they cause the offensive player to jump early, it is a neutral zone infraction.
What is a neutral zone infraction in football?
Neutral zone infraction occurs when a defensive player jumps into the neutral zone and an offensive player close to the defensive player reacts to protect themselves. This is not encroachment because the defender did not make contact with the offensive player. If the defender had made contact with the offensive player across from him, the call would have been encroachment instead of neutral zone infraction. (Examples)
This is a judgement call for the referee. If the referee believes the offensive player jumped as a natural reaction to the defender moving, a neutral zone infraction is called.
The large majority of the time, the referees side with the offense, so if a defender jumps, and an offensive player reacts, the penalty is called on the defense even though both players moved.
Now, offensive players know this so if a defender jumps into the neutral zone, veteran offensive players will seize on that opportunity and react “naturally” knowing that it will force the referee to call a penalty on the defense.
A second way a neutral zone infraction can occur is when a defensive player jumps across the line of scrimmage and is deemed to have a clear path to the players in the backfield. So even if an offensive player doesn’t move, if the defender has a clear path, the referees will blow the play dead and call a neutral zone infraction.
They do this for player safety so a defensive player doesn’t hurt an unsuspecting offensive player. In both circumstances of this rule, the play is blown dead and the defense is assessed a 5 yard penalty from the previous line of scrimmage.
The biggest difference between neutral zone infractions and offside penalties is that the ball does not have to be snapped for a neutral zone infraction to occur (but it does for an offsides penalty). If a defender jumps before the ball is snapped and causes an offensive player to move, a neutral zone infraction is called.
What is a Hard Count in Football?
If you have been watching football at any level, you likely have heard an announcer mention the quarterback’s ability to draw defenders offsides with a “hard count”. What is hard count in football?
A hard count is when a quarterback uses voice inflection to simulate the count of the snap.
Most defenders try to hear how the quarterback sounds when they snap the ball or try to pick up patterns the quarterback falls into when they call out the signals to snap the football. Because quarterbacks know defenders try to pick up on patterns, and also that human nature is to react, the quarterback will change up the snap count from time to time to try to get a defender to jump offsides.
Some quarterbacks are better at it than others, but they really try to get this to happen so they can have a free play (from the offsides). Remember, we discussed in the offsides section that some offsides penalties result in the play continuing.
It is called a free play because even if the play results poorly for the offense, like an interception for an example, the offense can still accept the offsides penalty and get to replay the down. Often times, quarterbacks will try to throw the ball deep or attempt to make a big play in these situations.