The Problem of Pass Interference and Illegal Contact
When a receiver is running in a pass pattern and is more than five yards away from the line of scrimmage, a defensive player can’t push, shove, hold, or otherwise impede the progress of the receiver. If he does any of those things before the quarterback throws the ball, he’s called for either defensive holding or illegal contact.
Both penalties result in five yards and an automatic first down for the offense.
When a pass is in the air, if a defensive player pushes, shoves, holds, or otherwise physically prevents an offensive receiver from moving his body or his arms in an attempt to catch the pass, he’s called for pass interference. Except for being ejected from a game, pass interference is the worst penalty in professional football for any member of the defensive team.
Why? Because the number of yards that the defense is penalized is determined by where the penalty (or foul) is committed. So when the officials call pass interference against a defensive player on a pass attempt that travels 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the penalty is 50 yards.
The offensive team is given the ball and a first down at that spot on the field. If a defensive player is flagged (penalized) in the end zone, the offensive team is given the ball on the 1-yard line with a first down. (The offense is never awarded a touchdown on a pass interference penalty.)
This penalty is a judgment call, and you often see players from both sides arguing for or against a pass interference penalty. Officials don’t usually call pass interference when a defensive player, who also has a right to try to catch any ball, drives his body toward a pass, gets his hand or fingers on the ball, and then instantaneously makes physical contact with the receiver.
The critical point is that the defensive player touched the ball a split second before colliding with the receiver. On these plays, the defensive back appears to be coming over the receiver’s shoulder to knock down the pass. Often, you can’t tell whether the official made the right call on these types of plays until you see them in a slow-motion replay on television. These plays (called bang-bang plays) occur very quickly on the field.
In recent years, the NFL has asked officials to pay special attention to defensive coverage of receivers. The result has been a tremendous increase in the number of holding, illegal contact, and pass interference penalties on the defense. Defensive players feel like they can’t even breathe heavily on receivers without getting flagged. Any sort of incidental bumping or pushing now warrants a flag.
Defensive backs (safeties and cornerbacks) now can’t afford to cover receivers tightly, so they have to give the receivers a bit of a cushion. This softer style has allowed offenses throughout the league to rack up huge passing numbers. Receivers are catching more passes and offenses are gaining more yards. If you like this style of football, the game is more exciting. But if you prefer low-scoring defensive struggles, you’re not a happy fan.