Football Illegal Contact Penalty

football Illegal Contact Penalty

Illegal contact in football occurs during the defender's initial "jam up" after the ball is snapped. During a "jam up" the defender will attempt to slow the opposing receiver from running their route by pushing or locking arms with them, hoping to throw off the timing between quarterback and receiver. Illegal contact can only be called on the defense.


Illegal contact is when a defender grabs or holds onto an opposing receiver after the initial 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Defenders are allowed to "jam" the offensive receivers within the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, so long as the defender maintains continuous contact with the receiver and the quarterback has not thrown the ball. If contact breaks any further "jam" is considered illegal contact. It is also considered illegal contact if the defender continues to "jam" past the 5 yard window on a pass play.

There are some differences between the varying levels of the sport for illegal contact. For example, in high school there is no 5-yard space where a defender can jam a receiver. Instead of a penalty for illegal contact, the defender may be called for defensive holding or illegal use of hands if a ball is thrown to the receiver. A defender may still try to avoid a potential block on a run play.

In college, defensive players can get away with a little more contact than they can in the professional leagues. They can't jam the receivers up at the line of scrimmage, but they can jostle with the receiver down the field as long as the ball has not been thrown.

Illegal contact is often not called in an effort to allow the defenders and receivers to "play the game." There is usually some contact at the line of scrimmage, but unless it escalates to holding or grappling the referees will let the two play on.


Illegal Contact5 Yards, Automatic 1st DownNo penalty for Illegal Contact (not allowed, but called for Defensive Holding or Defensive Pass Interference instead)No penalty for Illegal Contact (not allowed, but called for Defensive Holding or Defensive Pass Interference instead)5 Yards, Automatic 1st Down*Only penalty when QB still has the ball5 Yards, Automatic 1st Down

When illegal contact can be called it is a 5 yard penalty and grants the offense an automatic first down.

Penalty Signal

football penalty signal illegal contact

To signal an illegal contact penalty, the referee will stand upright with one arm extended outward with an open palm.


  • Defender holds a receiver 10 yards down the field before the ball is thrown to them.
  • Receiver breaks the initial "jam" by the defender and the defender grabs or hooks the receiver to prevent a route from being run.
  • Defender continues "jamming" the receiver while a pass is thrown to the receiver.