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What is Pass Interference in Football?

Pass interference is an infraction that can be called on either the offense or defense. It is called when either a receiver or defender physically prevents an opponent from catching a pass by pushing, grabbing, or shoving. 

Since interference typically happens downfield between receivers and defensive backs with the ball in the air, officials are left to make snap decisions on whether or not a player’s ability to catch a ball was hindered enough to justify a flag. 

This makes pass interference one of the more controversial and difficult rules in football to interpret and understand. 

Key Takeaways

  • Pass interference can be called on both the offense and defense when a player physically denies an opponent the opportunity to catch the ball.
  • It’s a subjective rule that’s open to interpretation, leading to lots of debate on what should and should not be considered interference.
  • The NFL experimented with making pass interference an infraction that could be challenged by head coaches but removed the rule after one year.

Defensive Pass Interference

Interference can only be called on the defense after the ball is thrown. Before a pass, defensive players can instead be assessed a penalty for holding or illegal contact. These result in an automatic first down and five-yard penalty and an automatic first down. 

Defensive pass interference is a “spot foul” infraction, with the ball being placed where the penalty is called. This makes defensive pass interference one of the most consequential calls in football as an interference call 40 yards downfield results in a 40-yard penalty. [1]

Offensive Pass Interference

While the rule is equally applied to both the offense and defense, pass interference can be called on an offensive player at any time after the ball is snapped. The same interpretation exists and offensive players are forbidden from physically preventing a defensive player from trying to catch the ball.

In recent years, offenses have begun to implement, “pick plays” or “rub routes.” On these plays, two or more receivers run routes that intersect, causing receivers and/or defenders to run into either each other. This sort of incidental contact can create separation and opens up passing lanes for the offense.

In response, the NFL and NCAA have started to crack down on these pick plays which can be interpreted as a way to commit offensive pass interference but make it look accidental.

PICK PLAY! Explained

Regardless of where on the field the foul is called, offensive pass interference always results in a ten-yard penalty, and the down is repeated.

Interpreting Pass Interference

No foul has a bigger impact on the outcome of the game than pass interference, specifically when it’s called on the defense. Every defensive pass interference call is worth approximately 1.47 points for the offensive team. [2]


While it still isn’t as momentous as a turnover or an actual scoring play, that’s about a third of a point more than the next closest infraction. This is due to interference penalties being called on passing plays far down the field which, when called, are as good as a catch for the offense. 

For such an important rule, pass interference is very subjective, relying on the referee’s interpretation. The official NFL rulebook defines pass interference that “significantly hinders” a player’s opportunity to catch the ball. But different officials may have different interpretations of what “significantly hindering” a player means. 

This leads to plenty of scrutiny by coaches, players, fans, and even the rules experts now employed by most broadcasting corporations. 

Examples of Pass Interference

Pass interference is most often called on defensive players as they’re trying to prevent catches and many cases of interference are easy to understand.

Defenders are not allowed to “play through” their opponent, meaning that they cannot run or jump through a receiver to reach the ball. They’re also not allowed to hold down a receiver’s arm either while running a route or when extending their hands to make a catch. Defenders will often be caught with their back to the ball when it’s thrown. [3]

You’ll commonly hear broadcasters chastise a defender for “playing the receiver” instead of “playing the ball.” With the defender’s head turned, there’s little they can do to stop the receiver from making the catch besides interfering with them.

Defensive Pass Interference | NFL Football Operations

Reviewing Pass Interference

The debates over pass interference reached a boiling point in the 2019 NFC Championship game. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, the Rams escaped thanks in large part to this missed interference call. 

The Worst No-Call Ever Saints vs Rams

I don’t know what else you need to see. The Rams cornerback is “playing the receiver” and makes contact with receiver Tommy Lee Lewis while the ball is in the air. The no-call sent shockwaves through the sport, leading to the NFL trying to implement a challenge system for pass interference. 

But as NFL insiders reported, this was little better than a band-aid on a wound. [4]

In cases like the NFC Championship, perhaps a replay review would have fixed this blatant missed call. But a huge percentage of these calls are called correctly, and their subjective nature makes it difficult for an official in the replay booth to overrule their on-field peers unless it’s blatantly obvious. 

The 2019-2020 season began with this new replay system in place. But even challenged calls that seemed obvious were rarely if ever, being overturned. [5]

Coaches stopped challenging pass interference calls and the NFL quietly removed the option to challenge pass interference at the end of the year. 

In a cruel irony, New Orleans was again defeated in the playoffs. While nowhere near as egregious as the call the previous year, the Vikings beat the Saints in overtime on a play where tight end Kyle Rudolph could have been called for interference. 


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