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Understanding The Reverse Play in Football (Diagrams & Video)

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

The reverse play is one of the most exciting high-risk, high-reward plays in football.

Do it right, and the fans will cheer for a big play. 

Do it wrong, and the offense is in danger of losing a ton of yards and killing their momentum.

But how does the reverse work, why is it so effective, and how many different versions are there?

Keep reading to learn more.

What is the reverse play?

The reverse is a play designed to deceive the defense by running the ball in one direction before giving it to another player running in the opposite direction.

Reverse Play Diagram

For a traditional reverse play, the quarterback will often hand the football off or toss it to a running back or wide receiver who is passing behind him. The RB or WR will already have momentum and be close to full speed when they take possession of the football. The momentum of the entire defense will shift toward whichever direction the RB or WR is heading.

However, here is the twist and the trick element of the reverse play. The RB or WR that has possession of the ball will toss the back toward a wide receiver who is crossing in the opposite direction. This WR often starts his crossing movement a little later to disguise the ending of the play. If executed well and disguised properly, these plays can often break for a big gain.

Example of a Reverse Play

Here is a reverse play from the Carolina Panthers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018. Click below to watch the video or keep reading for an explanation.

When quarterback Cam Newton takes the snap, he already has his wide receiver DJ Moore coming from his left, while using McCaffrey as a decoy. He tosses Moore the football, and you can see the defense recognize the handoff and start to shift with Moore's momentum toward the right-hand side of the field.

Now notice Curtis Samuel at the bottom of the screen while this is happening. As DJ Moore takes the snap, Samuel is gathering momentum running right toward him. His cover defender is now totally lost in the traffic as he tries to trail with Curtis Samuel and ends up potentially in no man's land.

Curtis Samuel is already running at full speed when he picks the ball up from DJ Moore and takes it back towards the left-hand sideline. He picks up 15 yards before a defender can get close to him because of the well-executed reverse.

One key factor in the success of these plays is the wall built by the offensive linemen and blockers. The offensive line's initial assignment is a standard run block, but they very quickly release and head toward the left hash mark to form what's called a 'seal'. The linemen seal off the area of the field behind them, stopping any defenders who recognize the play and come back toward the ball. If you pause the video at the five-second mark you can see three blockers perfectly spaced out facing the defenders, ready to block them from getting a hand on Curtis Samuel.

The play eventually turns into a touchdown with Samuel cutting back across the field, but it all started with a very successful reverse. The play was extremely effective against a man-coverage look and caused chaos in the middle of the field with traffic heading in various directions. This is exactly how an offensive coordinator wants one of these plays to play out.

Fake Reverse Play

Now in this clip, the same play concept applies. The 2020 Arizona Cardinals also have a very mobile quarterback in Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. On this occasion, they take full advantage of it.

Click below to watch the play or keep reading for an explanation.

In this scenario, there is just one wide receiver in motion. Number 17 Andy Isabella starts from the bottom of your screen and immediately starts on a swing route across the back of his offense signaling a reverse play.

Meanwhile, quarterback Kyler Murray fakes the handoff to his running back who is coming from his left, making it look as if he'll take the football on a run to the right. Murray then fakes the handoff and motions toward the incoming Andy Isabella but doesn't give the football to him either.

Murray then progresses back around and takes off with the football himself to the right-hand side. By the time he does that the Cardinals have blockers out in front in a three-on-three situation with Cowboys defenders.

If you pay attention to the two deep safeties for the Cowboys, both bite on the Andy Isabella motion. One hesitates, but both safeties end up clearing out of the left-hand side of the defense. This is toward where they believe Isabella is going down the opposite sideline, which gives the Cardinals fewer defenders to block and easy yardage for Kyler Murray to pick up.

Reverse Screen

Here we have the 2021 Purdue offense against Michigan State, and a variation of the reverse play called a reverse screen. In this scenario, we have a handoff from the quarterback to his running back who is in motion from right to left. The RB then reverses the play by tossing it to a receiver moving from left to right.

Click below to watch the play or keep reading for an explanation.

The middle linebacker recognizes the reverse and darts up the middle of the field toward that receiver, who then tosses the football back to the quarterback.

The quarterback then throws the football to number 32, the same player who took the initial handoff at the start of the play. Only now the screen is perfectly set up for Purdue to charge for a major gain down the field.

With the clip paused at the seven-second mark, what you'll see is Purdue's offensive line forming a brick wall in front of the ball carrier. This is the 'screen' element of the play. There are now six men charging downfield in front of him, and they start to pick off oncoming tacklers one by one, with the play once again resulting in a touchdown.

Reverse Pass Play

The reverse pass play is often considered the best variation of the reverse play. The video highlights a smoothly executed example, with the defense unable to react to what's happening before it reaches the end zone.

Click below to watch the video or keep reading for an explanation.

 The quarterback takes the snap with his nearside receiver number 85 coming in motion underneath. The QB instantly puts the ball into the motion man's hands and the momentum heads toward the far side of the field. At the six-second mark of the video, you can see the entire defense is shifting directly toward the ball which happens to be on the far side of the field.

The ball carrier then tosses the football to a receiver coming back the opposite way, much like the Carolina Panthers clip we walked through earlier, only this time there’s one more twist in the play design.

After handing the ball off, the quarterback casually ducks under the incoming defender without alarming him, before getting into a full sprint toward the sideline.

The QB becomes a passing option for the WR in possession of the ball who throws him the football perfectly in stride for a well-worked touchdown.

Want more?

Check out our huge trick plays video bundle HERE.