neutral zone infraction

Understanding What Is A Neutral Zone Infraction

At the line of scrimmage, defensive linemen are always at risk of committing a foul. Penalties range from neutral zone infraction, offsides and encroachment. All these penalties happen before a snap.

Before the ball is snapped, there is a neutral zone area which is a no man’s land prior to the ball being snapped. This is the area between the offensive and defensive line running across the entire field. It starts from the line of scrimmage. 

So what is a neutral zone infraction? A neutral zone infraction is a penalty when a player enters the neutral zone prior to the ball being snapped. It is a 5-yard penalty with no loss of down.

Generally, a single player can enter the neutral zone before a snap. The center gets inside and takes hold of the ball to snap it.

Join me as I discuss the neutral zone infraction and the differences with offsides and false starts.

What Is The Neutral Zone?

Before we get started, let’s have a clear understanding of a neutral zone in football. Which is this area that is considered a no man’s land?

In American football, a neutral is an area between the defensive line and the offensive line before snapping the ball. The area covers the entire field width, starting from the scrimmage line.

This area is usually a single length and starts from the line of scrimmage. The neutral zone moves along with the line of scrimmage. 

This zone is usually established when teams are ready to play the ball. By then, the ball rests on the ground with the long axis at the right angle to the scrimmage line. The ball is also parallel to the sidelines. Only a center is allowed to the neutral zone because he must hold the ball and snap to a quarterback.

A neutral zone is a no man’s land in football. No player from either team should enter this zone before a play. You can call it the area between the defense and the offense.

It’sIt’s a neutral zone to avoid players lining right on top of each other. Overall, the neutral zone in football will exist until there is possession change, the ball is declared dead, or the kick has crossed a neutral zone.

What Is A Neutral Zone Infraction Penalty

The penalty is usually a loss of 5 yards for the team that causes the offense. The offense is exclusive on the defense as they try to get the ball before the snap. In other words, a neutral zone penalty is a 5-yard gain for the offense.

The penalty is usually played before a center snaps the ball. This means the same down will be replayed. A penalty awarded before a third-down play will see the play start as a third-down play.

american football game field with players and fans watching

Simply put, the penalty plays the down dead. However, there is an exception. The exception is when the offense is within 5 yards of the first down. When a defense commits a zone infraction penalty, the offensive team gets the first down.

A neutral zone infraction is considered even when the defender doesn’t make contact. If the defender moves beyond the neutral zone or beyond the offensive linemen, then a neutral zone infraction foul occurs. The referee whistles, and the offense gains 5 yards.

It can also occur when a defender moves into the neutral zone coming into close proximity to the offensive linemen. Generally, the offensive linemen will react as they protect themselves.

However, when offenses don’t react and defensive players return to their legal position, then the neutral zone infraction is not called. Close proximity is considered when the offensive players are two and one-half positions to a defender.

The referee can warn such players. However, if they still enter the neutral zone after the warning, a foul is given even if they return to their legal position.

What Is The Penalty Signal of Neutral Zone Infraction

How can players tell the referee has awarded a penalty for a neutral zone infraction? Well, there is a signal for a neutral zone infraction.

The referee will signal a neutral zone infraction by putting his hands on the hips. The referee then follows by pointing his hand to the side of the team that committed the penalty.

Overall a neutral zone infraction signal is pretty much the same as an offside or encroachment penalty.

Example Of Neutral Zone Infraction

Below, I’ll outline a few examples to better illustrate a neutral zone penalty. Common neutral zone infraction examples are:

  • When two defenders are lost in the hard count. As such, they rush toward the quarterback before the center snaps the ball
  • It also happens when a defensive lineman moves forward out the 3-point stance. The movement hits the opposing side and into the neutral zone.
  • It can also happen when players move to the neutral zone unknowingly. This usually happens when they think the snap is about to happen. However, they find they have moved closer to the opposing center and into the neutral zone before the snap.

The Differences Between Offsides & Neutral Zone Infraction?

As I indicated earlier, the neutral zone penalty is similar to offsides and encroachment. But what’s the difference between these two?

Offsides occur when the ball is snapped with the defensive player at the scrimmage line. That’sThat’s totally different from neutral zone infractions, which occur when a player enters the neutral zone. Consequently, this causes the opponent’s players to move.

beginnging of an american football game

The penalty for the two offenses is the same. Both get a 5-yard penalty with no down loss.

Offsides and zone infractions are also different in how they affect free-to-play. The effect of offside on free play differs from that of a neutral zone penalty.

A player lining in an offside position lacks a clear path to the quarterback. By accepting an offside penalty, the offense gets free to play. However, a dead ball foul results from a neutral zone infraction, as the ball has not been snapped. Such a penalty does not allow a free play with yards before a snap.

The Difference Between A False Start & A Neutral Zone Infraction?

The difference is that a false start is a penalty to the offense, while a neutral zone infraction is a penalty to the defense.

In a pre-snap at the line of scrimmage, offensive players must remain motionless. This is with the exception of the few players in motion.

If an offensive player makes any movement in the pre-snap, then a 5-yard penalty is given. False start penalties are against the offenses, while offsides are against the defense.

Simply put, a false start is when an offensive player jumps before a snap. False starts are against the offense, while neutral zone infraction is against the defense. False starts in football are illegal for the following reasons.

  • First, it’s unfair for the defense as they only have to watch the ball to know it has been snapped. It becomes difficult for the defenders to know when the ball is snapped. The disadvantage comes in since wide receivers in the offensive team have made an early movement.
  • Secondly, a false start gives the offense an unfair advantage by getting them in a post-snap position. The advantage is quite big for the offensive linemen. 

However, there are a few exceptions allowed. The offensive linemen can move their hands and shoulders. But the movement should appear like they are stimulating or starting play.

A good example is when the quarterback changes play at the scrimmage line to match with defense alignments. When such happens, the offensive linemen can also move their heads or twist their shoulders to get a better view of the quarterback. This enables them to listen and get play instructions.

In such cases, such movements are not considered a false start. However, once instructions are passed, the offensive linemen must remain set again and wait for the snap.

Linemen are not allowed to change their stance or move in a three-point stance, as this would stimulate play. When they change into a two-point stance, it’s considered a false start that tricks defenders.

The same applies to wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. When they are set before a snap, no one is allowed to move forward whatsoever, as this would stimulate play.

Who Is Allowed in the Neutral Zone?

Only the center is allowed in the neutral zone so that he can snap the ball to the quarterback. The center is allowed because he has to hold the ball to snap it. Movement of the positional players outside the neutral zone results in a 5-yard penalty.

center in american football holding the ball

Why Is It Called the Neutral Zone?

It’s called a neutral zone since no player enters this area. Only the center who snaps the ball to a quarterback is allowed in the neutral zone. Simply put, it’s a no man’s land before a snap to avoid giving positional advantage to any team. The foul is usually enforced before a snap.

Does the Ball Have To Be Snapped for a Neutral Zone Infraction?

The ball doesn’t have to be snapped for a neutral zone infraction to occur. The penalty aims to deter players from coming to the neutral zone before a snap. When players do, a 5-yard penalty is given to the offending team with no loss of down.

It means the offensive team gains 5 yards without loss of down since the ball has not been snapped.


In summary, a neutral zone infraction is a penalty that occurs when a player enters the neutral zone and a center has not snapped the ball. The neutral zone, which is the area between the defensive and offensive line at the line of scrimmage, is considered a no man’s land. 

Before a snap, only the center is allowed into the neutral zone. So when positional players not touching the ball enter the zone, it’s called a neutral zone infraction with a 5-yard penalty. Ideally, this is a 5 yard gain for the offense since the penalty is committed by the defense.

However, the offensive players should remain still and not make false starts. False starts also have a 5-yard penalty as they trick defenders that the play has started.

No penalty is given if players enter a neutral zone and leave without movement from the opposing team. It’s crucial for players and fans to have a clear understanding of the neutral zone infraction. 

Hopefully, now you know what a neutral zone infraction is and how to avoid it. For the fans, this information is crucial to understanding what happens at the line of scrimmage.

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