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Illegal Contact Football Penalty Explained

Press coverage happens at every level in football. It’s a way to slow down receivers and throw off the quarterback’s timing.

Is it illegal to make contact with wide receivers past 5 yards? In the NFL, defenders may only make contact with a receiver within 5 yards. In college and high school, defenders may contact a receiver as long as the ball is not in the air.

So in college/high school, teams can hit wide receivers wherever on the field? Well, it depends. Check out our video and description below to better understand the rule.

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This week we have a defensive play that includes making contact with wide receivers. This play differs from what the NFL deems legal and what the NCAA allows. Let’s take a look at what’s happening above!

In this clip, we can see a receiver crossing the middle of the field a little over 5 yards. The receiver is looking back at the football, waiting for the pass. It is important to note that the ball has not been thrown yet.

The linebacker sees the receiver crossing over the middle and puts him on the ground as the play progresses. The receiver eventually gets up and continues his route as the quarterback scrambles for a gain of 4.

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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
catchable.

Illegal Contact Penalty (NFL & College)

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.

How Come Players Don’t Make Contact Down Field?

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 often 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 at a rapid rate. 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.

Corners often contact wide receivers from the top of numbers to the sidelines ( 9 yards of space to work with). When a linebacker or nickel back has to jam a receiver in the slot, it doubles the space they have to cover, making it more difficult.

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 entirely legal, and no flag was thrown on this particular play.

Keep Learning

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?