The reverses will typically start as either: (1) a bootleg, where the quarterback runs parallel to the line of scrimmage before handing the ball off to the runner*; (2) a sweep, where the running back takes the ball from the QB and then runs parallel to the line of scrimmage before running up the field; or (3) an end-around, where a wide receiver runs behind the line of scrimmage toward the opposite sideline, taking the ball in a handoff from the QB on the way.
In any of these plays, the reverse occurs when the runner that received the ball from the QB hands the ball, or laterals it, to a teammate before crossing the line of scrimmage. That teammate is running across the field in the opposite direction from the first runner—hence the term “reverse.” A double reverse is just what it sounds like: the second runner hands, or laterals, the ball to yet a third player, who is heading in the opposite direction. Of course, the double reverse carries more risk of a turnover or loss of yards because it takes more time to develop.
So, why is the reverse effective? Once the quarterback gives the ball to the first runner, the defense commits its pursuit laterally across the field toward the same sideline as the runner. When the play changes direction with the handoff to the second ball carrier, it is very difficult for the defense to change direction, and the final ball carrier can usually outrun the defense for a big gain.
Here is an example of a reverse with a further wrinkle: the “reverse option,” where the second ball carrier passes the ball to a teammate downfield. This play was part of the Pittsburgh Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL. Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle El played quarterback in college, at Indiana University, before coming to the pros and was the perfect candidate for this play:
Sending the ball downfield made it even harder for the Seattle Seahawks to catch up to the play, as most of the secondary would have already been committed to covering the opposite sideline, where the first ball carrier was running.
*Remember, the term “runner” is used to refer to whichever player has the ball, also referred to as the “ball carrier.” Therefore, it does not necessarily refer to the running back; the runner can also be a wide receiver or tight end.