In (American) football, only the running backs and ends (but not offensive linemen) are supposed to (try to) catch passes.

Because of that fact, an offensive team can be penalized if its linemen are past the line of scrimmage, and not blocking someone. An important exception is the so-called "screen pass."

But what happens if a lineman crosses the line of scrimmage, starts blocking, say, a linebacker, and the defender gets past him so that he is "loose" in enemy territory.

Apparently that routinely happens in a screen pass, which is why there is no penalty in such situations. But why would there be a penalty on other occasions?

Of course there should be a penalty if a lineman actually caught a pass, but why would there be a penalty for his merely being "downfield?" Or put another way, what causes a penalty to be assessed or not when an offensive lineman is "loose" downfield? How might an official decide whether or not e.g. the "screen pass" exception applies?

3 Answers 3


To answer your question(s):

  • The penalty is assessed if the ineligible player is more than 1 yard down field on a forward pass play unless he is blocking a player that initiated within the 1 yard buffer zone.

  • If the defensive player breaks the contact with the ineligible player, the player must stop. He may not continue down field until the pass in completed.

  • Once a pass is complete all players may advance at their own discretion.

  • In the NFL there is no "screen pass exception", this is a NCAA rule where a player can be down field if the pass in completed behind the line of scrimmage.

NFL - Eligible Receiver

In order to catch a forward pass, a player must be an eligible receiver:

  1. They can line up in the backfield (ie running back, quarterback, or receiver)
  2. They can be on either end of the line of scrimmage (ie a tight end or split end)

Also in the NFL an eligible receiver cannot wear a number of 50-79 or 90-99 with more specific guidelines by position (Rule 5, Section 3, Article 1). These players have to declare to the referee they intend to be eligible on a play and the referee will announce that player as eligible. This is done so that the defense can figure out who can go out for a pass and needs to be accounted for. The player must line up as eligible if he reports as eligible.

NFL - Rule 8, Article 8

An in eligible player may not catch/or touch a pass, behind or in front of the line of scrimmage unless it is first touched by an eligible receiver or a defensive player.

NFL - Article 8, Section 3

This covers ineligible player downfield.

Article 1: Legal and Illegal Acts.

On a scrimmage play during which a legal forward pass is thrown, an ineligible offensive player, including a T-formation quarterback, is not permitted to move more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the pass has been thrown.

Item 1: Legally Downfield.

An ineligible player is not illegally downfield if, after initiating contact with an opponent within one yard of the line of scrimmage during his initial charge:

(a) he moves more than one yard beyond the line while legally blocking or being blocked by an opponent; or

(b) after breaking legal contact with an opponent more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, he remains stationary until a forward pass is thrown; or

(c) after losing legal contact with an opponent more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, he is forced behind the line of scrimmage by an opponent, at which time he is again subject to normal blocking restrictions for an ineligible offensive player.

NCAA - Article 7-3-10-I and II

Ineligible Receiver Downfield ARTICLE 10.

No originally ineligible receiver shall be or have been more than three yards beyond the neutral zone until a legal forward pass that crosses the neutral zone has been thrown (A.R. 7-3-10-I and II).

This means that a pass thrown behind the neutral zone (line of scrimmage) does result in a penalty for ineligible players down field. Also the "buffer zone" in college is 3 yards vs. 1 yard in the NFL, but the NCAA does not have the blocking rule that allows a player to leave this buffer zone until the pass in complete.

2013 NFL Rule Book from NFL.com

NFL Rule on Offensive Lineman

2014 NCAA Football Rule Book


To add an answer that explains things more instead of repeating rules (which diggers answer is very good) -

  • NFL lineman get up to 1 yard downfield before blocking someone. They can block their guy any number of yards downfield as long as they maintain contact the entire time. The rule does not create a negative impact for the offense for the offensive player performing well. However if he knocks a guy on the ground you have to teach your guys to not hit him while he is getting up.
  • Allowing NFL lineman to go more than 1 yard downfield is absurd. There would be literally hundreds of trick plays and defenses would have no chance. They would literally have no pass reads because anything could be a pass. DBs are taught to play the run when a WR tries blocking them. Without this rule there could still be a pass play. This doesn't even get into a guard and center combo setting up 5 yards downfield to provide picks on slant plays. The game would be ridiculous.
  • However ridiculous the game may be with lineman allowed downfield (imagine playing a 200 pound guard that can set picks) it sure sounds like fun. And it would be fun as hell. But injuries would be off the charts. It is a player safety rule. Imagine you are a CB playing man coverage. The WR runs a 5 yard in across the formation, you get to the hash, boom a 300 pound lineman blows your ass up. You run that a few times a game and then man coverage (and most blitz packages) don't exist.
  • There is a screen pass rule in the NFL. It is for eligible receivers. They are allowed to only block players within a yard of the line of scrimmage on forward passes behind the line. Otherwise they would get called for pass interference. So it doesn't fall into the ineligible man downfield but same theory. Basically on forward passes behind (officials say within 1 yard on the line) WRs can act as a lineman. On any other pass plays WRs may not initiate contact with a defender.
  • Is the screen pass rule for backward passes or for forward passes behind the line?
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 20:22
  • @Joe - There is no blocking rules for backward passes. These are simply runs. It is for forward passes behind the line. I will edit since my sentence wasn't too clear.
    – Coach-D
    Commented Jan 13, 2015 at 20:36
  • OK, so the point is, beyond one yard downfield, offensive linemen cannot "maneuver" (that's block one defender, then another). They have to maintain contact with the same defender the whole time (up to 10 yards downfield). Makes sense. And regarding the rule for wide receivers: What about "tight ends?"
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 15:33
  • @TomAu A tight end is an eligible receiver so he is subject to the same rule as the wide receivers as is a running back or even quarterback.
    – diggers3
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 17:16
  • 1
    @TomAu and there is no "10 yard limit" as to blocking a defensive player. I believe Coach-D was just using it as an example. A lineman could technically block a player all the way down the field.
    – diggers3
    Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 17:19

Basically, the rule seems to be against ineligible "blocking" rather than ineligible "receiving." 1) No one (lineman or receiver) is allowed to start a block more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage on a pass play. 2) Linemen who are ineligible to receive are not allowed to go more than 1 yard downfield, unless they are "continuing" a block started in "eligible" territory. 3) Screen passes are exempt as long as they conform to the "one yard" rule. 4) Eligible receivers are allowed further downfield than one yard, but only to catch, and not to block, with would be (offensive) pass interference. 5) After a pass is complete, the above rules no longer apply.

These rules help the defense defend against passes, possibly at the expense of allowing more runs. Members of the "secondary" and backfield cannot be blocked, unless they go to within one yard of the line of scrimmage, say, on a blitz.

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