There are 3 main penalties that can be called on the defensive secondary on passing plays in football. Those three penalties are:
- Defensive Pass Interference
- Illegal Contact
- Defensive Holding
If you are trying to learn the sport, understanding the difference between these three might be quite confusing. At times, maybe they seem like the same thing. What is the difference between defensive pass interference vs holding vs illegal contact?
Defensive pass interference (also known as DPI) is when a defensive player makes contact with the intended receiver while the ball is in the air.
Defensive holding occurs BEFORE the pass is thrown, and is when a defender grabs a receiver and hinders the receiver from evading the defender.
Illegal contact in the NFL is when a defender initiates contact with the receiver when they are more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. In college football, illegal contact is a defender creating contact to the head or neck area to a receiver (source).
To truly understand how these penalties work, you also must understand how spot fouls work. Visit our article: What is a spot foul in football?
Although those are the quick definitions of each, there are some key differences between how these penalties are called and how the yardage of each penalty is assessed. Also, there are differences in how the NCAA and NFL administer them.
In this article we will discuss the details of these penalties in further detail to give you a better idea of how each one works.
Defensive Pass Interference
For a defense to be flagged with pass interference, there are four things that have to happen:
1. The pass has to be deemed catchable. This is a judgement call by the referees that if a player hadn’t been interfered with, they would have been able to catch the pass.
2. The receiver must be an eligible receiver. There will be at least 6 players that are not eligible to catch a forward pass, and thus, these players by rule can’t be interfered with.
3. The illegal contact must be while the ball is in the air. If the ball is not yet in the air, it will be another defensive penalty.
4. The pass must not have been tipped by another player before the interference occurred. Once the ball is tipped, all normal football contact is allowed, even tackling of an offensive player.
So ultimately, defensive pass interference is when a player makes contact with a receiver that impedes the receiver’s ability to catch a forward pass.
It is important to remember that the defender has a right to catch the ball as well, so just because there is some contact on a play does not mean that it is always defensive pass interference. Offensive players can be called for pass interference as well.
If the defensive player accidentally makes contact with a receiver or makes contact with a receiver while looking back for the pass, they shouldn’t get called for defensive pass interference. But remember, referees are humans. That means there will always be a bit of difference between individual referees about how they interpret and judge pass interference. (Examples)
Illegal contact is different in the NFL vs college football.
The NFL allows defensive players to make contact with receivers as long as they are still within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Once a receiver gets more than 5 yards down the field, the defender must disengage from the receiver or they will get flagged for illegal contact.
Within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, defenders are allowed to push, shove, chuck, or induce any type of contact except tripping, holding, or hitting in the neck or head area.
The NFL does allow for incidental contact past five yards, which is why illegal contact is not called when players’ feet get tangled up or when players are harmlessly using their hands to knock the other player’s hands out of the way (also known as “hand fighting”).
One caveat to this rule is once quarterbacks scramble, or get outside the pocket, defenders are allowed to make contact with receivers again anywhere on the field (even beyond five yards downfield). They do have to be careful in these situations though because if the quarterback throws it to the receiver they are making contact with, it can be called defensive pass interference.
Contact is allowed once the quarterback is outside the pocket because at that point the quarterback is considered to be a possible runner, and receivers are also allowed to block for the quarterback. So, it would be not be fair to the defenders if receivers are allowed block but defenders can’t make contact back with the receivers.
Illegal contact in college football is strictly contact that is to the head or neck area while trying to defend a player going down the field. The NCAA allows defenders to chuck, or shove, offensive players up until the pass is thrown (even if beyond 5 yards downfield).
At the time of the pass, the defender must stop making contact with the receiver, or they will get flagged for defensive pass interference. Unlike the NFL, the NCAA allows them to continue making physical contact with the receivers as long as it is not grasping the jersey and keeping the receiver from getting free.
Defensive holding can be called anywhere on the field, even behind the line of scrimmage. Defensive holding is simply a defender grabbing an offensive player to keep them from getting free.
Defensive holding is usually called on defensive backs who are trying to stay up with receivers. Despite this, defensive holding can and does get called on defensive lineman who will hold offensive lineman so the offensive lineman can’t go block another defender.
One other situation that can be tricky is when a running back gets a fake handoff and then tries to run out of the backfield for a pass. In this situation, defensive players are allowed to grab or tackle the running back who got the fake.
Defenders can take this too far though and try to grab running backs who clearly don’t have the ball, and even though a running back got a fake handoff, the defender can still be called for defensive holding if the referee deems the defender should have known the running back didn’t have the ball. (Examples)
Defensive Pass Interference vs Holding vs Illegal Contact
If you are trying to find a basic way to understand the differences of these penalties, let’s discuss some basic way to identify these penalties.
Pass Interference vs Holding
Pass interference occurs when the ball is in the air, while holding is a pre-pass penalty. If a defender holds on to a receiver while the ball is in the air, the penalty will be pass interference and not holding. In the NFL, pass interference is a spot foul while holding is a 5 yard penalty (both automatic first downs).
Pass Interference vs Illegal Contact
Just like pass interference vs holding, when comparing pass interference vs illegal contact it comes down to this: pass interference occurs when the ball is in the air, while illegal contact is a pre-pass penalty. In the NFL, pass interference is a spot foul while illegal contact is a 5 yard penalty (both automatic first downs).
Holding vs illegal contact are similar, so what is an easy way to differentiate between the two?
Holding vs Illegal Contact
Holding and illegal contact are both pre-pass penalties in the NFL, and cannot be called when the ball is in the air. Once the ball is thrown, holding and illegal contact both become pass interference penalties.
To understand the subtle difference between holding vs illegal contact, it comes down to this: holding is when a defensive player grabs and holds a receiver, while illegal contact is basically all other forms of downfield contact besides holding. The only main difference is holding can occur near the line of scrimmage, but illegal contact cannot. Both are five yard penalties and automatic first downs.
All three of these penalties will give the offensive team an automatic first down. This means that no matter what the yardage the offense needed to gain or how little the penalty yardage is, the offense will get a first down.
Giving the offense an automatic first down is a huge boost to the offense and is meant to help the offense score more points.
- Defensive holding is a 5 yard penalty, except when an offense is within the opponent’s 10 yard line, in which case the penalty yardage will be ½ the distance to the goal.
- Illegal contact is also a 5 yard penalty, except when an offense is within the opponent’s 10 yard line, in which case the penalty yardage will be ½ the distance to the goal.
These two penalties (holding and illegal contact) have the same penalty yardage in both the NFL and college football.
Defensive Pass Interference is different for college football and the NFL.
- In college football, Defensive Pass Interference is a spot foul, or however far down the field the penalty occurred up to 15 yards. If the foul was committed more than 15 yards down the field, the penalty will still only be 15 yards. In the event the foul is committed in the end zone and is not more than 15 yards down the field, the ball will be spotted at the 2 yard line. If the previous play was from inside the opponent’s 2 yard line, then the penalty is half the distance to the goal.
- In the NFL, Defensive Pass Interference is a spot foul, which can lead to penalties being 50 plus yards sometimes. There is not a max penalty yardage like there is in college. Whenever the foul occurs in the end zone, the ball is placed at the 1 yard line, or ½ the distance to the goal if the last play was from inside the opponent’s 2 yard line.
Often times in the NCAA, when a defensive back is beaten deep, they will just purposely interfere with the wide receiver and not allow the receiver to catch the ball because they know the penalty will only be 15 yards. To keep players from doing that in the NFL, they make it a spot foul and reward the offense as if they receiver had actually caught the ball at that spot.
Does Pass Interference Count as a Reception?
You may wonder since defensive pass interference is a spot foul in the NFL, is the yardage and reception given to the offensive player? Does pass interference count as a reception?
No, pass interference does not count as a reception. Neither the yardage nor the reception is given to the offensive player.
For fantasy players, this can be very frustrating because your player can seemingly have a huge play and a defender wipes it out by interfering with your receiver, which keeps both the receiver and the quarterback from getting that yardage.
In the real life game, it doesn’t matter because the penalty gives them the yardage as if the receiver had caught the ball at the spot. This is just one of those situations where fantasy and real life don’t get accounted for in the same way.