Specific Pass-Play Penalties in American Football

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

These penalties occur only when the offensive football team has attempted a forward pass. Here are three of the most common penalties you see on pass plays:

  • Illegal contact: When a defensive player makes significant contact with a receiver who’s 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Illegal contact is a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. This penalty has become much more prevalent in the NFL as the league no longer wants to see receivers impeded as they go out into their pass patterns.

  • Intentional grounding: When a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage due to pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completing it. If he throws such a pass in his own end zone, a safety (two points) is awarded to the defense.

    It is not intentional grounding when a passer, while out of the pocket (the protected area within the area of two offensive tackles), throws a pass that lands at or beyond the line of scrimmage with an offensive player having a realistic chance of catching the ball. When out of the pocket, the passer is allowed to throw the ball out of bounds. The penalty is loss of down and 10 yards from the previous line of scrimmage if the passer is in the field of play, or loss of down at the spot of the foul if it occurs more than 10 yards behind the line.

  • Pass interference: When a defensive player physically restricts or impedes a receiver in a visually evident manner and materially affects the receiver’s opportunity to gain position or retain his position to catch the ball. This penalty is an automatic first down, and the ball is placed at the spot of the foul. If interference occurs in the end zone, the offense gets a first down on the 1-yard line. However, when both players are competing for position to make a play on the ball, the defensive player has a right to attempt to intercept the ball.