Football Officiating 101: Pass Interference: What’s The Penalty?

1by Rogers Redding

One of football officiaiting most confusing penalties is pass interferenece. Fans often ask questions about the penalty for pass interference. It can be confusing when the referee sometime announces that “the penalty is fifteen yards from the previous spot” and other times he says “first down at the spot of the foul.”

Let’s start with the simple things. When the foul is for offensive pass interference, it’s easy: the penalty is fifteen yards from where the ball was snapped (officials call this the “previous spot”) and the number of the down stays the same. But for pass interference by the defensive team, then things are more complicated. Here’s the story.


Defensive pass interference always includes an automatic first down for the offense. The location of the penalty enforcement depends on the where the foul occurs in relation to the previous spot. If the foul takes place FEWER than 15 yards beyond the previous spot, then the penalty is simply an automatic first down at the spot of the foul, and no additional yardage is assessed. If the foul takes place 15 OR MORE yards beyond the previous spot, then the penalty is 15 yards from the previous spot plus an automatic first down. So for example, if the interference takes place seven yards downfield from where the ball was snapped, then the next play is a first down at that spot (officials call this a “spot foul”); but if the foul takes place, say, 25 yards beyond where the ball was snapped, then the officials will step off 15 yards from the previous spot–again, with an automatic first down.

Things get more complicated when the offense gets near the opponent’s goal line. The two-yard line takes on special significance. If the ball is snapped outside the defensive team’s two-yard line, defensive pass interference will never place the ball inside the two-yard line. So, for example, if the offense snaps the ball at the 12-yard line and there is defensive pass interference at the one-yard line or in the end zone, the offense gets a first down at the two-yard line. Think of the two-yard line as a sort of “wall” for enforcement of the penalty.

Furthermore, the half-the-distance rule is also different for defensive pass interference. For most fouls, a penalty will not cause the ball to be snapped closer than half the distance from the enforcement spot to the nearest goal line. However, this is not the case for defensive pass interference when the ball is snapped outside the defensive two-yard line. For example, if the ball is snapped at, say, the 18-yard line and there is defensive pass interference in the end zone, then the officials will step off the full 15 yards from the previous spot, and the offense will have first down at the three-yard line. If the ball is snapped on or inside the two-yard line, then the half-the-distance rule does apply.
Keywords: football officiating, football offi

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