Any infraction that is determined to be holding on the defense invokes a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down regardless of the situation.
The most common instances of this penalty occur on passing downs to potential pass catchers like wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs.
There are instances where defensive linemen and linebackers have also been given defensive holding penalties for inhibiting the movement of offensive linemen, but these tend to be rarer.
- Defensive holding is always punished by a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense
- Defensive players cannot grab or throw offensive players aside unless they are being actively blocked by the offensive player. Defensive players are never allowed to grab or hold onto potential receivers.
- Once a pass is thrown, defensive holding can no longer be called.
What is Defensive Holding?
A defensive player can be called for holding if they inhibit the movement of an offensive player that does not possess the ball by grasping an offensive player with their hands or extending their arms to cut off or trap them. 
Some exceptions to the rule do apply. If an offensive player is trying to block a defender, the defender is allowed to push, pull, and grab to avoid the block or when defending himself against an obstructing player. However, defenders cannot grab another offensive player and prevent them from carrying out their block as demonstrated in the video below.
Defensive holding is most closely scrutinized on the perimeter of the field between receivers and cornerbacks on passing downs. In these cases, defenders are allowed to maintain “continuous, unbroken contact” with the offensive players. 
The NFL rule book refers to this initiated contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage as, “chucking.” This can be pushing or blocking a receiver from running his route. But the defender is still not allowed to grab or hold them to keep them from getting away.
As the offensive player exits this five-yard area, the defender can no longer inhibit the offensive player’s movement and must break off contact. Failing to do so will result in a penalty flag being thrown.
Defensive holding can no longer be called once a pass is thrown either forwards or backward or if there’s a fumble. Offensive players that are pretending to possess the ball can also be grabbed and held before they reach the line of scrimmage.
What’s the Difference Between Defensive Holding, Illegal Contact, and Pass Interference?
The biggest difference between these three infractions is that holding and illegal contact can only occur before the ball is thrown. Once the ball is in the air, only pass interference can be called.
Holding and illegal contact have the same penalty, a five-yard penalty, and an automatic first down. Illegal contact cannot occur within five yards of the line of scrimmage since pushing and other actions are legal for the defense. Once they’ve passed this five-yard boundary, defenders are no longer allowed to push or physically inhibit offensive players’ progress unless they have the ball. 
Holding is used to describe an infraction where an offensive player is being grabbed or held in some way regardless of whether it’s within the five-yard buffer.
Once the ball is in the air, all infractions in which a defender makes contact or grabs a receiver will be called pass interference. This is a “spot foul,” meaning the ball will be placed where the infraction occurred. Because of this, the ramifications of pass interference are more consequential. If the pass interference is called on a deep pass 40 yards down the field, it will result in a 40-yard penalty compared to the small five-yard infraction for holding or illegal contact. 
Read more: WHAT IS THE PLAY-ACTION PASS?
Examples of Holding
Like many NFL rules, defensive holding and pass interference are open to interpretation and will depend on the opinion of the referee on whether there’s enough contact to warrant a penalty. At times, defenses can use this non-binary rule to their advantage by playing a more physical brand of football, especially on receivers to keep them from getting into their passing routes and throwing off the offense’s timing.
In the early 2010s, the Seattle Seahawks put together a secondary defined by their physicality. Nicknamed the “Legion of Boom,” their scheme centered around their cornerbacks playing close to the line, utilizing this five-yard buffer zone to blur the lines between what constituted a holding penalty and hard-nosed defense. 
If they played tough and physical on every play, it would be on the referees to call holding, again and again, slowing the game and leading to an unattractive brand of football. This led to the NFL emphasizing their defensive holding and illegal contact penalties that became known as “The Legion of Boom Rule.”
More recently, the defensive holding was called with less than two minutes left in Super Bowl 56 between the Rams and Bengals. On third down and leading by four, Cincinnati was called for a pivotal hold. Los Angeles scored a couple of plays later and went on to win.
By the letter of the law, is this a hold? Probably, but for it to be called at such a pivotal moment in the biggest game of the year, led to plenty of controversy and vitriol.