What is the Definition of in American Football?

A lateral in American Football is a type of pass where the ball is thrown sideways or slightly backward on the field. The purpose of this pass is to move the ball towards the goal line by involving several players on the team. Unlike a forward pass, which must be thrown towards the opponent’s goal line, a lateral is thrown away from the goal line, making it a unique and strategic play in the sport.

The use of lateral passes significantly differs from other passes in football. In addition to the direction of the pass, the rules governing lateral passes involve unique conditions. For example, a lateral pass can occur at any time during a play, as long as the ball is parallel to or moving away from the goal line. Furthermore, if a lateral pass is missed or dropped, it results in a fumble, increasing the risk associated with such a play.

Key Takeaways

  • A lateral pass in American Football is thrown sideways or slightly backward on the field.
  • Lateral passes differ from other passes due to their unique direction and associated rules.
  • The strategic use of lateral passes can lead to unexpected and memorable plays in the sport.

Lateral Definition and Purpose

A lateral in American football refers to a type of pass where the ball is thrown sideways or slightly backward on the field. The key aspect that distinguishes a lateral pass from a forward pass is that the ball must travel parallel to or away from the opponent’s goal line. If a lateral pass is dropped or missed, it results in a fumble, meaning that either team can recover and advance the ball.

The purpose of laterals in football is to create strategic opportunities for the offense to exploit gaps in the opposing defense and make big plays. Since laterals can be executed at any point on the field, they add an element of unpredictability that can catch the defense off guard. Moreover, laterals can be incorporated into various plays and formations to increase the chances of gaining yards and scoring.

In summary, a lateral pass in American football is a pass thrown sideways or slightly backward with the intention of strategically maneuvering the ball down the field. It serves as an effective tool that can be combined with other offensive plays to help teams find openings in the defense and create opportunities to advance the ball towards the opponent’s goal line.

Differences from Other Passes

In American football, the lateral pass is a unique type of pass that has distinctive characteristics when compared to other types of passes, such as forward and backward passes.

Forward Pass

A lateral pass is different from a forward pass in multiple ways. While both can involve any player in possession of the ball, a forward pass can only be thrown once by the team on offense and must be thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. In contrast, a lateral pass can be thrown at any time, from any location on the field, and multiple times during a single play. Another significant difference is in the direction of the pass: a forward pass must move towards the opponent’s end zone, whereas a lateral pass must travel parallel to or away from the opponent’s goal line.

Backward Pass

Though the lateral pass is sometimes referred to as a backward pass, there are subtle differences between the two. A lateral pass is a type of backward pass that specifically moves parallel to the sidelines or away from the opponent’s goal line. However, a “pure” backward pass, like a pitch or a handoff, is also allowed in American football and can involve any player on the field.

In conclusion, the lateral pass in American football has unique characteristics that distinguish it from both forward and backward passes. Its flexibility in terms of when and where it can be thrown, along with its directionality, make it an essential component of various offensive strategies in the game.

Rules and Regulations

Restrictions and Eligibility

A lateral in American football is a sideways or backward pass between players on the same team. The ball must move parallel or away from the goal line that the original ball carrier was running toward. Unlike a forward pass, a lateral can be thrown at any time during a play, even after a change of possession. A lateral is the only type of pass that can be legally thrown during a play after a change of possession.

In order for a pass to be considered a legal lateral, the following restrictions apply:

  • The ball must not travel forward beyond the point from which it was thrown
  • The pass must be made between players who are both on the same team
  • There is no maximum on the number of laterals that can be performed during a single play


There are potential penalties associated with the improper execution of a lateral pass. If a lateral is missed or dropped, it would result in a fumble. Any player, regardless of their team affiliation, can recover a fumbled lateral and advance it. Unlike a forward pass, if a backward pass hits the ground or an official, play continues. The backward pass that has hit the ground can also be recovered and advanced by either team.

On rare occasions, a player may improperly execute a lateral and accidentally throw a forward pass instead. In this scenario, the penalty for an illegal forward pass would apply: a loss of 5 yards from the spot of the pass, and a loss of down, if the forward pass occurred after the change of possession.

It is essential for teams to execute lateral passes correctly to avoid penalties and potential losses of possession.

Lateral Pass Techniques

A lateral pass in American football is a type of pass that travels sideways or diagonally from the quarterback to a receiver outside the tackle box. Unlike forward passes, laterals can be attempted from anywhere on the field by any player to any player at any time.

One key aspect of executing a successful lateral pass is timing. The passer must release the ball at the right moment to ensure that the receiver is in a good position to catch it. Good communication between the passer and receiver is essential for coordinating this type of play.

In addition to timing, the trajectory and velocity of the pass are crucial. A successful lateral pass requires a flat and accurate throw, as a high arc can make it more difficult for the receiver to catch and could lead to a turnover. The passer should also keep the ball moving at a consistent velocity to prevent defenders from intercepting the pass.

Lateral passes are commonly used in the following scenarios:

  • Trick plays: Teams may use lateral passes in trick plays to catch the defense off guard. These plays often involve multiple laterals, making it difficult for the defense to predict the intended target.
  • Desperation plays: When time is expiring and the offensive team needs a touchdown to tie or win the game, laterals can be used to keep the play alive even if one of the laterals reaches the turf.
  • Special teams: Lateral passes are sometimes used in kick and punt returns to create confusion among the opposition and generate big returns.

Practice and repetition are essential for mastering lateral pass techniques. It is important for players to develop chemistry and trust with their teammates to execute these passes effectively during critical game situations. Utilizing lateral passes strategically can provide teams with an additional weapon in their offensive playbook, leading to unpredictable plays and increased scoring opportunities.

Famous Lateral Plays in American Football

One of the most famous lateral plays in American football history is the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.” On November 19, 1978, the Philadelphia Eagles faced the New York Giants in a critical late-season game. With seconds remaining and the Giants leading 17-12, New York quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled a lateral handoff which Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards scooped up and returned for a touchdown, sealing a stunning 19-17 victory for Philadelphia.

Another iconic lateral play occurred during the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma. Trailing 42-41 in overtime, Boise State attempted a desperation two-point conversion to win the game. Quarterback Jared Zabransky successfully pitched the ball to running back Ian Johnson on a Statue of Liberty play, securing a thrilling 43-42 victory for the Broncos and etching the play in college football lore.

The “Music City Miracle” is a lateral play that remains a hot topic of debate among football fans. In the 1999 AFC Wild Card game, the Tennessee Titans faced the Buffalo Bills. With 16 seconds left and the Titans trailing 16-15, Tennessee’s Lorenzo Neal fielded a short kickoff and handed the ball to Frank Wycheck, who threw a lateral pass to Kevin Dyson. Dyson sprinted down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown, capping an improbable 22-16 win for the Titans. The play’s legality, however, is still discussed as it is debatable whether the pass was truly a legal lateral.

Finally, the Miami Dolphins executed one of the most successful hook and ladder plays in NFL history during a 1981 playoff game against the San Diego Chargers. Trailing 24-17 with just seconds remaining, Miami quarterback Don Strock threw a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Duriel Harris, who lateraled the ball to running back Tony Nathan. Nathan sprinted into the end zone for a touchdown, sending the game into overtime. Although the Dolphins ultimately lost the game, this iconic play remains a testament to the excitement generated by laterals in American football.