Football Neutral Zone

Football Neutral Zone

What Is the Neutral Zone in Football?

The neutral zone in football is an imaginary area of the field that is only used in dead-ball situations, such as before the ball is snapped or kicked. The neutral zone separates the offense and defense and is present before every down. It runs the entire length of the field, parallel to the end zones, and is the same width as a football. In the middle of the neutral zone is the line of scrimmage which restricts either the offense or defense.

NFL Neutral Zone

In the NFL, the neutral zone is often referred to synonymously with the line of scrimmage because its width is so narrow. The official width of the neutral zone is 11 inches or the exact length of an NFL football. No players on either the offense or defense are allowed to enter the neutral zone before the ball is snapped, except for the center (C) on offense, who is responsible for snapping the ball. On televised football games, the neutral zone or line of scrimmage is usually marked by an imaginary blue line.

Kickoff and Pregame Neutral Zones

For kickoffs, some changes occur to the neutral zone. The width of the neutral zone increases to 10 yards in order to keep both teams separated, while the length remains the full length across the field. Only a kicker and holder are allowed to enter the neutral zone for kicking plays. Additionally, the kicking team may not touch the ball until it has crossed the neutral zone or a player on the opposing team has touched it. 

The NFL also makes use of a “pregame neutral zone” that spans the distance between both 45-yard lines, and is used to separate the two teams during pregame warmups, to avoid the possibility of squabbles or fights.   

Football Neutral Zone Rules

The neutral zone is a very important part of the field and has various rules and regulations. At the start of every down, there must be exactly seven offensive players lined up on their side of the neutral zone (line of scrimmage) prior to the snap. Two of those players must be eligible receivers. Except for the snapper, no player may cross the plane of the neutral zone prior to the snap.

Football Neutral Zone Penalties

There are also a number of penalties associated with the neutral zone in football. A neutral zone infraction penalty occurs when a defensive player moves into the neutral zone and forces an offensive player to move as a result. This penalty is a loss of five yards for the defense.

A very similar penalty is encroachment, which is called when a member of the defense crosses the neutral zone and makes contact with a player on the offense before the ball is snapped. This is also a five-yard penalty.

Finally, an offside penalty occurs when any part of a player is within or on the wrong side of the neutral zone at the same time as the ball is snapped, causing a loss of five yards.

Here is a full list of penalties that can occur in the neutral zone:


How large is the neutral zone in football?

The neutral zone is 11 inches wide and extends from sideline to sideline. The neutral zone is centered on the line of scrimmage, with a half-football length extending on either side. (The 11-inch width is equal to the length of an official NFL football. Because it is so narrow, many consider the neutral zone and the line of scrimmage to be interchangeable.

What is the difference between offside, encroachment, and a neutral zone infraction?

Though they are similar penalties, there are important differences between offside, encroachment, and a neutral zone infraction relative to the neutral zone. Offside occurs whenever players initially line up past the line of scrimmage before the snap. Encroachment is when a defender lines up behind the line of scrimmage and then touches an offensive player before the snap. Finally, a neutral zone infraction is when a defender lines up behind the line of scrimmage but crosses into or over the neutral zone prior to the snap.   

Are the neutral zone and the line of scrimmage the same?

Though the neutral zone and the line of scrimmage occupy the same space on the field, they are different concepts in execution, though there is an overlap between them. The line of scrimmage refers to the yard line on which both teams line up for a play, also known as the line on which the ball is placed. The neutral zone, meanwhile, is the length of the football and is the space between the two groups of linemen, which cannot be crossed prior to the snap. In short, the line of scrimmage is the line the ball is placed on, while the neutral zone represents the space made by the length of the football while it is on the line.