In the NFL, speed is king. Pass rushers rely on it to beat their blockers around the edge on high leverage passing downs. Receivers and running backs rely on it to beat their defenders. And special teams units rely on it on the edge to get to the kicker quicker than he can kick it.
But those kicking units are just as fast and a quick silent snap count and kick can negate the fastest edge rusher if they are not keenly aware of the snap at that exact moment. The answer is simple: key in on kicking team signals that indicate the snap is coming.
More and more special teams are finding ways to time the snap of the ball without even looking at the center and this presents a whole range of safety issues as speed rushers off the edge can sometimes go offside and unabated to the kicker. Officials must be quick to blow the play dead the instant a rusher comes off the edge to prevent a potential collision.
In 2016 in a Monday night football game, this became a point of contention when then Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman jumped offside and was unabated to the kicker. The play was blown dead by referee Walt Anderson, but the whistles were blown too late. Sherman had already collided with the Bills kicker.
In the all-22 clip, you can see Sherman jump well offside before the ball is snapped. In the broadcast clip at the end, you can hear the whistles blown later than they should’ve been. At Sherman’s jump offside, the play should’ve been blown dead immediately. Bills kicker Dan Carpenter was injured on the play.
Fast forward to 2021 and the league is taking a closer look at the tactics and techniques used time the snap in an effort to enhance player safety. The tactic is timing the snap and getting an early jump. The officials themselves are being trained to focus on the techniques used to get that jump: the speed rusher off the edge cluing in on the holder’s hand movements in a silent snap count with the center. In some cases, a coach may alert the crew that a particular player is using such tactics.
In this clip, you can see the Lions speed rusher coming off the edge from the defensive left (bottom of the screen in the side line angle). He’s lined up just about a foot behind the rest of the line along the line of scrimmage and has a clear view of the holder. He can see when the ball will be snapped without even looking at the ball because of the signal the holder gives the center. By lining up behind the line, he has a margin to legally start his attack before penetrating the neutral zone.
As soon as the holder opens his hand, that rusher off the edge is gone. He ends up being chipped by the blocker on the edge but you can see how fast he is able to jump at the snap just keying in on that silent snap count.
In another game, a special teams defender on the Cleveland Browns field goal blocking unit (No. 54) timed the snap by watching the holder’s tap of the ground to signal the center to snap.
In the end zone angle, the rusher can be seen staring straight through the gap in front of him and not even watching the snap of the ball. As soon as the holder taps the ground, the blocker is out of the gate.
In a later game in Minnesota, a Carolina Panthers lineman timed the snap by watching the holder’s signal was across the line of scrimmage before the ball was even snapped.
The defender ended up blocking the kick due to his early jump. In the TV broadcast, no whistle can be heard until a few seconds after the kick is blocked. Because the line-of-scrimmage officials will typically throw their flag straight up, there are no visible flags on the all-22. The jump is a little early, so the defense was correctly flagged for being offside, but when there’s an unabated path to the holder and kicker, officials must shut the play down immediately. (Without an unabated path, the play can continue as long as the defensive offside does not create a reaction from the offensive line.) Because of the explosive speed from the edge and the lack of a mobile ball carrier on a kick attempt, there is an extra vulnerability that requires officials to kill the play immediately.
In all these examples, officials are being taught to be sensitive to first movement at the snap but also to be aware of where defenders are lining up. As long as the player doesn’t violate the neutral zone while trying to get a rolling start, it is not a foul, but it requires extra concentration by the officials.