Common Penalties in American Football

Part of the Football For Dummies (USA Edition) Cheat Sheet

Making sense of the penalties in American football can be tough — unless you have a handy list of common penalties to refer to as you watch a football game. Here are some brief explanations of common penalties in American football:

  • Encroachment: When a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage and makes contact with an opponent before the ball is snapped. Encroachment is a 5-yard penalty.

  • False start: When an interior lineman on the offensive team moves prior to the snap of the ball, or when any offensive player makes a quick, abrupt movement prior to the snap of the ball. This is a 5-yard penalty.

  • Holding (defensive): When a defensive player tackles or holds an offensive player other than the ball carrier. The penalty is 5 yards and an automatic first down.

  • Holding (offensive): When an offensive player uses his hands, arms, or other parts of his body to prevent a defensive player from tackling the ball carrier. The penalty is 10 yards.

  • Offside: When any part of a player’s body is beyond the line of scrimmage or free kick line when the ball is put into play. Offside is a 5-yard penalty.

  • Pass interference: A judgment call made by an official who sees a defensive player make contact with the intended receiver before the ball arrives, thus restricting his opportunity to catch the forward pass. In the NFL, this penalty awards the offensive team the ball at the spot of the foul with an automatic first down. In college, pass interference is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

  • Personal foul: An illegal, flagrant foul considered risky to the health of another player. A personal foul is a 15-yard penalty.

  • Roughing the kicker: When a defensive player makes any contact with the punter, provided the defensive player hasn’t touched the kicked ball before contact. This is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

  • Roughing the passer: When a defensive player makes direct contact with the quarterback after the quarterback has released the ball. This is a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

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