ITP Glossary: Onside Kick

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From punt gunner to climbing the pocket, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Onside Kick

An onside kick is a play designed for the kicking team to recover the football, as opposed to kicking it deep, or “away” to the other team. Usually, teams trying to recover an onside kick will line up in 6X4 kickoff alignment. The kicker will attempt to drive the ball into the ground, generating an unpredictable bounce that gives his teammates a chance to recover the ball. Onside kicks must travel at least ten yards in order to be legal. If the football is touched by a member of the kicking team prior to it traveling ten yards, the result is a five-yard penalty for illegal touching.

An onside kick is a desperate attempt to recover a “live ball” that has traveled at least 10 yards from the spot of the kick and/or is touched by an opposing player. The kicker attempts to place the ball as close as possible to his teammates in order to increase the chances of recovery. The receiving team just needs to field the ball cleanly and cover up to retain possession. 

Because of the risk of giving the receiving team good field position, the strategy is typically employed in late-game situations where the kicking team trailing and the extra possession is necessary. One such example occurred in the 2014 NFC Championship Game:SeattleOnside4

The Seattle Seahawks line up in a commonly-used onside kick formation against the Green Bay Packers. The Seahawks are aligned in 6×4 Right formation, with six men stacked outside the top numbers. Kicker Steven Hauschka takes a short approach to the ball, attempting to drive it into the ground, and creating a bouncing ball that gives his team a chance to recover. The high bounce prevents the return team from fielding the ball prior to the Seahawks getting downfield:SeattleOnside5

Hauschka strikes the ball, and the six men at the top of the screen are in a full sprint. Notice that all six men are still behind the line of scrimmage at the kick, as a player past the line of scrimmage would result in an offsides penalty and negate a recovery by the Seahawks.

Hauschka’s kick is a strong one, traveling 12 yards, and is recovered by the Seahawks after a Green Bay bobble:SeattleOnside6


In addition to the traditional onside kick, teams may also try surprise onside kicks which do not openly declare their intentions the way a last-second attempt with 6X4 kickoff alignment.

In Week 1 of the 2015 season, the Seahawks faced off with the St. Louis Rams and were tied at the end of regulation. To start overtime, the Seahawks aligned in standard 5×5 kickoff formation and appeared ready to kick deep:SeattleOnside1

However, Hauschka instead strikes the ball into the turf in an apparent attempt to surprise the Rams:SeattleOnside2

The Rams react perfectly, and their front line holds its ground, allowing them to recover the ball at the Seattle 49-yard line:


This gives St. Louis a short field to work with, as they ultimately scored a field goal that proved to be the difference in the game.

Chuck Zodda contributed to this entry.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass and/or Game Rewind.

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