What Is an Illegal Shift in Football?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens

Nothing frustrates a football coach more than penalties, especially when those penalties are unforced or mental errors. Penalties that are often unforced and the result of a mental error on the NFL, NCAA college football, and high school football levels consist of (but are not limited to) the following:

  • False start
  • Illegal formation
  • Encroachment
  • Neutral-zone infraction

Another type of unforced penalty in American football is an illegal shift. An illegal shift is a penalty that the offense commits before the play begins, without the defense having an effect on the foul. Illegal shifts can happen in a couple of offensive scenarios, so understanding the rule is important for football teams to eliminate the mistakes.

What Is an Illegal Shift?

An illegal shift is a type of motion penalty that occurs when more than one player on the offense is not set before the snap. A shift is a pre-snap movement where two or more offensive players change positions.

The movement becomes illegal and results in a penalty when those players do not come to a complete stop and establish position after the shift. According to NFL rules, illegal shifts result in a five-yard penalty and a replay of the down.

Chicago Bears v New England Patriots

Situations When Illegal Shifts Occur

Illegal shifts are common with teams that use pre-snap resetting to confuse the defense. The idea is that the defense will be based on the original lineup and will not be able to realign in time after the shift. In addition, shifts can occur when teams audible to change the original play at the line of scrimmage.

After the play is audibled or changed, the offensive team often has to change its formation to run the new play. Snapping the ball too quickly before everyone has set and finished moving can result in an illegal shift penalty.

Preventing Illegal Shifts

The best way to prevent illegal shifts is to limit tricky pre-snap motions in the backfield, which can throw off the offense almost as much as the defense in many cases. In addition, breaking the huddle earlier and allowing all linemen and wide receivers to get set can eliminate penalties that are caused by running out of time on the play clock to complete the shifts. Signaling in the plays faster from the sideline is often an issue with the shift and the slow huddle break.

Illegal Shift Vs. Illegal Motion

Illegal shifts are often confused with illegal motion penalties. Shifts are a team foul with multiple players, while an illegal motion penalty is called on one player, usually for a player moving toward the line of scrimmage before the snap of the football.

According to football officiating rulebooks, a player moving toward the line must get into a set position for one full second before the time of the snap. Like an illegal shift, an illegal motion penalty is a 5-yard penalty on the offense.

Illegal Motion Video Example