What is a Cutback in Football?

The game of football is loaded with terminology and slang, one thing many fans wonder about is what the term cutback means. This term refers to an action made by the ball carrier that changes the direction of the play.

A cutback in football is a sharp change of direction by the ball carrier in the opposite direction the play was headed. In other words, the ball carrier will cut back across the field laterally.

This article will break down what a cutback looks like on the football field and why this move can be effective. We will also cover similar topics such as the counter in football.

Understanding the cutback

Cutbacks in football are not part of rushing play design. Instead, this decision is made by the ball carrier if they believe they see an opening in the defense.

On a rushing play, all players on the field will begin to move toward the side of the field the ball is being run towards.

standard rushing play design
Example of a rushing play

Usually, this results in a tackle but it can leave the far side of the field unprotected. On occasions running backs or wide receivers will be able to cut all the way back across the field for a large gain.

rushing play with a cutback
Rushing play with a cutback

In the image above a play with a cutback from the halfback (HB) is shown. On this rush, the running back was meant to run outside the tight end on the right side of the field.

As the free safety (FS) approaches the ball carrier he realizes he is going to be tackled. At this point, the ball carrier performs a cutback and runs to the left side of the field instead.

This can potentially result in a large play because the majority of defenders will have already moved to the right side of the field based on the movement to start the play.

The risk of cutting back like this across the field is the potential for a tackle for loss.

As shown in the image above the ball carrier is going to be behind the line of scrimmage for a large portion of the run. If any defensive player seals the edge or anticipates the cutback they will have a chance to make a big play.

Cutbacks vs Counter plays

Though cutbacks are not planned in football there is are some plays that are quite similar.

One style of play that has a similar feel to a cutback is a counter play. A counter play works by having a running back fake he is going to run to one side of the field only to run to the other.

The idea behind a counter run is that the fake will move the defense in the wrong direction to start the play.

This will allow the offensive players to find open space on the other side of the field.

Counter runs usually feature a less dramatic cut across the field than a cutback.

These rushing plays usually involve a step or two in one direction before cutting back to the other side of the field. While cutbacks often have a player running the entire width of the field to find some open space.


Remember cutbacks in football occur when a ball carrier suddenly changes direction and cuts laterally across the football field.

Cutbacks are most commonly used on rushing plays but can be done by receivers or kick/punt returners as well.

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