Illegal Contact In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: March 6, 2024

Press coverage happens at every level in football. It’s a way to slow down receivers and throw off the quarterback’s timing. However, the illegal contact rule prohibits defensive players from making contact past a certain point.

What Is Illegal Contact In Football? Per the NFL rulebook, defenders may only make contact with a receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. However, defenders in college and high school may contact a receiver as long as the ball is not in the air.

In college/high school, defenders can make contact with receivers wherever on the field. In this article, we’re going to show you what illegal contact is and why it’s called against the defense.

Illegal contact is when any defensive player makes contact with a wide receiver before the ball is thrown. The rule differs per level of play.

The NCAA rule states that contact may be made with a receiver if the ball isn’t in the air. If the quarterback had thrown the ball, then the contact was made, it would be a pass interference call.

From the NCAA rule book:

Illegal Contact and Pass Interference
ARTICLE 8. a. During a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the
neutral zone, illegal contact by Team A and Team B players is prohibited from
the time the ball is snapped until it is touched by any player or an official
(A.R. 7-3-8-II).
b. Offensive pass interference is contact by a Team A player beyond the
neutral zone that interferes with a Team B player during a legal forward
pass play in which the forward pass crosses the neutral zone. It is the
responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents. It is not
offensive pass interference (A.R. 7-3-8-IV, V, X, XV and XVI):

1. When, after the snap, a Team A ineligible player immediately charges
and contacts an opponent at a point not more than one yard beyond
the neutral zone and maintains the contact for no more than three
yards beyond the neutral zone. (A.R. 7-3-10-II)

2. When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and
bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass. Eligible players of
either team have equal rights to the ball (A.R. 7-3-8-IX).

3. When the pass is in flight and two or more eligible players are
in the area where they might receive or intercept the pass and an
offensive player in that area impedes an opponent, and the pass is not

Illegal Contact Penalty (NFL & College)

via NFL

This rule differs tremendously from the NFL rule. In the NFL, players cannot touch receivers past 5 yards. This is often referred to as the “Mel Blount Rule” (Mel Blount was a famous corner for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was notorious for jamming and punishing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Learn more about Mel Blount and the 5-yard contact rule in the NFL here.

Younger players often confuse this rule with the NFL rule – which is common because more players watch NFL Sunday games rather than Saturday college games.

Illegal Contact With Receivers

This is a common question – “If you can make contact anywhere on the field, why don’t teams always jam receivers wherever they go?”.

Teams don’t jam at the line of scrimmage consistently for a few reasons.

  1. Making contact with wide receivers is hard to do, especially consistently.
  2. Jamming faster players (especially in the slot) can put linebackers or nickel back’s out of position.
  3. Risk of penalty from both holding or pass interference if the ball is thrown quickly

Making contact with wide receivers is hard to do, especially consistently.

Playing press on receivers requires a particular skill set, including quick/powerful hands and fast feet. Cornerbacks are often the position equipped with this skillset and do it consistently.

Especially in the spread passing era, chasing players 30-40 yards downfield every play can tire defensive backs rapidly. Playing zone coverage gives players a better chance to rally to the football and be included in every play.

Jamming faster players (especially in the slot) can put linebackers or nickel back’s out of position.

Linebackers covering a speedy slot receiver can be a matchup nightmare. This is the exact reason the “nickel back” was born, for the ability to get an extra defensive back on the field to help neutralize the passing attack.

Defensive players are at risk of defensive pass interference and defensive holding when they make contact with wide receivers. This will often result in a severe penalty of an automatic first down.

Risk of penalty from both holding or pass interference if the ball is thrown quickly

Press coverage from anywhere on the field is often high risk, high reward. It helps disrupt timing and can stall receivers from getting into their route. Couple this technique with a blitz, and you’ve got a healthy combination.

Couple this with consistent play and no pressure. It could often turn into a penalty nightmare. Pass interference calls and holding calls are frequent calls from consistent man coverage.

In college, making contact with a wide receiver is legal – ONLY when the ball is still in the quarterback’s hands. In the clip above, the quarterback still has the ball in his hands.

For this reason alone, the linebacker’s contact with the wide receiver is legal, and no flag was thrown on this particular play.

Incidental Contact

The term incidental contact may be used by referees when determining whether to call a penalty for illegal contact or not.

Incidental contact in football is when the defensive player incidentally makes contact with the receiver while the ball is in the air. The defensive player has every right to the football as the wide receiver does.

If they both are fighting to intercept the football, contact may be made by both players. It’s at the referee’s discretion if the contact is incidental and ruled legal.

Now that you’ve learned about the illegal contact, don’t stop there!

The Ultimate Football Guide

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Keep Learning

The defense, especially in the NFL, is at a disadvantage with rules. The physical game that used to be is no longer. Football is now a finesse game that favors the offense’s passing attack.

Because of Mel Blount, NFL defensive backs are no longer allowed to contact wide receivers past 5 yards, or they will be called for illegal contact. When the defender contacts the wide receiver (or grabs them), the referee will throw a flag for illegal contact.

Below are articles to help you learn more about the rules of football.

Rules Of American Football – Beginner’s Guide

Difference Between Legal & Illegal Blocks In Football

What Is A Flag In Football? Penalty Flags Explained

Can A Football Game End On A Penalty?

Football Overtime Rules: NFL Vs. College/High School

Understanding the 5 Yard Contact Rule In The NFL

Learn Offsides, Neutral Zone Infraction, and Encroachment

Complete Guide To Referee Signals In American Football

What Is A Safety In Football? Explained

A penalty should have been called here, unnecessary roughness. Contacting a wide receiver is legal, but not when it’s malicious or leading with the head.

Big hits happen – it’s football. But hits like this when a player leads with their head are dangerous. No flag was thrown on this play, although it could have been.

What are your thoughts? Do you think something else should have been called in this situation, or do you think everything was legal?

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.