Football Illegal Shift Penalty

Football Illegal Shift Penalty

In football, an illegal shift penalty is called as a result of illegal movement prior to the snap. An illegal shift is often confused with illegal motion, but various things separate the two. An illegal shift penalty can only be called on the offense and results in a five yard loss for the offense.


When two or more offensive players are moving prior to the snap, it is considered a shift. When a singular player is moving before the snap it is called motion. The offense has to be in a legal formation before and after shifts.

Following a shift, all offensive players must set for at least one second. If all players, aside from a single player in motion, do not set for at least one second prior to the snap, then a penalty is called.

This penalty is also called if the player directly behind the center (most often the quarterback) does not come to a complete stop for at least one second before a second shift/motion occurs.


Illegal Shift5 Yards5 Yards5 YardsNot a FoulNot a Foul

When an illegal shift is called, the result is a five yard loss for the offense. The ball is moved back five yards from the previous line of scrimmage. In the NFL, NCAA, and high school, the illegal shift penalty is worth five yards. However, in the CFL and AFL illegal shifting is not considered a penalty.

Penalty Signal

Football Penalty Signal Illegal Shift

To signal an illegal shift, a referee puts both hands at chest level, angled towards each other. The referee then extends their arms out forward and returns them to the original positioning. The illegal shift looks very similar to an incomplete pass, but on an incomplete pass a referee tends to extend their arms more to the side.


  • An illegal shift penalty will be called if the ball is snapped and a player fails to come completely set following a shift. For example, a tight end and a wide receiver shift from one side of the center to the other. Before both players are in a set position for at least one second the quarterback hikes the ball.
  • A running back moves out of the backfield into a slot position. While the running back is getting set, a second shift occurs. A wide receiver steps back off of the line of scrimmage to become eligible. A penalty will be called if the ball is snapped before the second shifting player is not set for at least one second.

Similar Penalties To Illegal Shift