Pass Interference In Football Explained

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: January 26, 2024

Pass interference can completely change the outcome of any football game. It’s a common penalty that is often in high school, college, and professional-level football games. What is the pass interference rule and why is it an important penalty in football?

Pass interference in football is when a defensive player prevents the offensive player from catching the football while the ball is in the air. The rule states the defensive player may not make contact with the offensive player while the ball is in the air

In this article, we’ll show you everything you need to know about pass interference.

Defensive Pass Interference Rule

Defensive pass interference calls can drastically change the momentum of any football game. The rule was created when the forward pass was allowed.

The defensive pass interference rule was implemented to give the player trying to catch the football the right to catch it without a defender interfering.

There are several reasons why the referee may throw a flag for defensive pass interference.

The most common type of pass interference is when two players are both trying to catch the football, but the defensive player is too aggressive. This will often result in the referee throwing the penalty flag.

The defensive player must allow the offensive player a chance to catch the football.

However, the defensive player has the same rights to the football as the offensive player. This means that if a defensive player is actively looking back to the football and is in a position to try to catch the ball, they may try to catch it or knock it away.

The penalty flag is often thrown when the defensive player makes no effort to put themselves into position to play the football in the air. Instead, they make too much contact with the wide receiver, which results in a penalty flag.

Here is a clip from one of the more controversial no defensive pass interference calls in the last 25 years.

Pass interference is decided by the referee who is in the area. They are ultimately the ones who decide if it’s a defensive pass interference call or not.

This is one of the areas that fans get the most worked up about because many think that defensive backs consistently commit pass interference.

Penalty For Defensive Pass Interference

If the football official declares that the defensive player has made too much contact with the wide receiver, they will throw a flag instead of trying to catch the football.

The penalty flag differs based on the level of play. These are the different penalties for each football league.

  • High School Football: 15 Yard Penalty From The Line Of Scrimmage
  • NCAA Football: 15-Yard Penalty From The Line Of Scrimmage & Automatic First Down
  • NFL Rules: Automatic First Down & The Ball Is Placed Where The Penalty Was Committed

As you can see, the penalty for defensive pass interference is far more severe at the professional level than at the high school and college levels.

Pass Interference Calls

The pass interference penalty sign from the referee can be seen below. They will put two hands out in front of them in a pushing motion.

signal for pass interference
Signal For Pass Interference

Defensive pass interference at the high school level doesn’t always mean it’s a first down. By NFHS rules, if the offense has 3rd and 20, and defensive pass interference occurs on the following play, the team will replay the down, which will be 3rd and 5.

In college football, however, it’s less risky. The referee will throw a penalty flag for 15 yards, and the offense is automatically granted a first down.

Professional levels (like the NFL) have the most punishing pass interference rules. They mandate that when the penalty flag is thrown for defensive pass interference, the ball is immediately placed where the pass interference penalty occurred (the spot of the foul). The offense also gets an automatic first down.

If the foul occurs inside of 10 yards, it’s common to hear the referee say “The penalty is half the distance to the goal line”. Because the foul will not extend into the end zone, the rule states that the 10-yard penalty (in high school and college), will be half the distance to the goal line. So if the ball is on the 10-yard line, it will be placed on the 5-yard line.

This call has had many implications for teams who are trying to throw the ball deep down the field late into games.

The pass interference call in football is constantly argued by fans, players, and coaches. It does differ from illegal contact and defensive holding, which is another rule in itself.

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Offensive Pass Interference In Football

While the defense is commonly called for pass interference, there is an offensive pass interference penalty as well.

Visit this link for a great visual of offensive pass interference.

When the ball is in the air, if the offensive player makes too much contact with the defensive player trying to intercept the ball, they may be called for offensive pass interference.

The result of offensive pass interference in football is the offense is penalized 15 yards.

For example, if the penalty occurred on a play that was 2nd and 10, following the penalty, it will be 2nd and 25. This is only if the penalty is accepted by the defense (high school and college).

This is a rare penalty, but it can happen. Pass interference calls are typically all up to the referee’s discretion. Some referees may not throw a flag, while others might. It all depends on what the referee deems as their version of pass interference.

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Keep Learning

Pass interference is called on the defense because the defensive player inhibits the receiver’s ability to catch the ball. The pass interference rule is a ten yard penalty from the line of scrimmage in high school and college football. In the NFL, the ball is placed at the spot of the foul.

The offensive team typically benefits from any pass interference call. However, the offense can be called for offensive pass interference, which can really hurt a drive.

Only eligible receivers are qualified for the pass interference penalty.

If you enjoyed learning football, we recommend you check out our Ultimate Football Guide below. It has everything you need to increase your football IQ.

If you want to learn more about the rules of football, we recommend checking out this blog which has a full set of rules, complete with referee signals.

What are the worst defensive pass interference calls that you’ve seen? Let us know in the comment section below.

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.