Defenseless player protections are being extended to the intended receiver on a pass after an interception or potential interception under a new provision this year. This provision closes a hole in the safety of receivers who already are considered defenseless while attempting to catch a pass or while completing the process of a catch. In order to receive this protection, the intended receiver needs to be actively tracking the ball according to a video on the 2015 rules changes sent out to players by the NFL. The defenseless player’s protection ends once they are able to ward off or avoid contact.
A defenseless player is protected from an opponent making forcible contact to their head or neck area, even if that contact starts lower than the neck, and from an opponent using their helmet by either lowering their head and making forcible contact with the top of the helmet or by launching into the defenseless player. The opponent is responsible for avoiding illegal contact with the defenseless player.
Prohibited contact against a defenseless player is normally penalized as a personal foul for unnecessary roughness, 15 yards and an automatic first down. However on an interception, timing of the foul is important in determining whether or not the intercepting team gets to keep possession of the ball. If the foul occurs simultaneous with or after the interception, then the intercepting team may keep possession of the ball with the 15-yard penalty enforced from the spot of the foul. If the foul occurs before the interception, though, then the foul is against a receiver attempting to catch a pass, so the penalty is enforced with the offense keeping the ball.
The enforcement difference between an intended receiver on an interception and a receiver attempting to catch a pass was the topic of an NFL Officiating Department video in the preseason. In the play on the video, a pass gets tipped high into the air. While the ball is still in the air from the tip, the receiver gets hit to the head/neck area by a defender. The tipped pass is then intercepted. The officials on the field ruled that the contact occurred after the interception and enforced the penalty after the change of possession. In the video, NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino said that this ruling was incorrect as the foul occurred before the interception, thus “the offense should keep [the ball] and it’s enforced from the previous spot 15 yards and an automatic first down.”
Contact which is incidental and not forcible is not illegal. For example, a defender making contact with the head of a defenseless player incidental to an attempt to tackle that player would not be considered a foul as Blandino clarifies in another video from the NFL Officiating Department. However the defender is responsible for avoiding forcible contact even if the receiver’s level changes.
The eleven defenseless positions are:
- A player throwing a pass
- A receiver attempting or in the process of catching a pass
- A receiver whose attention is on the interception or potential interception
- A runner who is in the grasp of a defender and forward progress has been stopped
- A kick or punt returner attempting to catch a kick
- The kicker or punter from the kick through the end of the play
- A player on the ground
- The quarterback after a change of possession
- A player receiving a blindside block (must be toward or parallel to the blocker’s end zone, and approach must come from the back or side)
- A player with protections from an illegal crackback block (that is, the illegal low block can’t be countered by going for the head)
- The snapper on a field goal or point-after attempt
With the exception of numbers 6 and 8, which continue through the remainder of the play, the defenseless player protections generally end once a player has the ability to avoid or protect himself from the contact.
Photo: Seattle Seahawks
Marcus Griep has joined Football Zebras as a contributing writer. This is the first of what we hope are many posts from him. Welcome, Marcus.