Football Unnecessary Roughness Penalty

football unnecessary roughness penalty

The unnecessary roughness penalty is a personal foul designed for the purpose of maintaining player safety. There are a number of actions that will result in unnecessary roughness being called, but it is most notably called when a defensive player makes contact with the head or neck area of a defenseless player. The result of the penalty is 15 yards with an automatic first down (if the offending player is on defense).


Unnecessary roughness is defined as an illegal act in which a player uses unnecessarily violent methods to tackle or block another player. Unnecessary roughness is most typically called when there is a hit by a defensive player to a defenseless player’s head or neck area or when a defensive player leads with his helmet into a tackle, whether or not the player he is tackling is considered to be defenseless.

A player is considered to be defenseless:

  • While in the act of passing the ball or just after releasing the ball
  • While in the act of receiving or attempting to receive the ball
  • While in the act of establishing possession after receiving the ball
  • When a runner is already in the grasp of a tackler and forward progress has been stopped
  • While a kickoff/punt returner is attempting to field the ball in the air
  • When on the ground at the end of the play

Unnecessary roughness is also called in the event of a late hit or a malicious hit away from the play and can be called on either a defensive or offensive player. Late hits are most commonly observed when a defensive player unnecessarily hits the ball carrier as he is going out of bounds, when there is a delayed hit on the quarterback while he is sliding, or when there is a hit on a punt returner after a fair catch is signaled.

Unnecessary Roughness Rule

Officials can call any action for unnecessary roughness. However, there are nine specific acts that the NFL rulebook identifies as constituting unnecessary roughness. They are:

  • Using a foot or leg to hit an opponent in a whipping motion (leg whip)
  • Contacting a runner with force after they are out of bounds
  • Blocking outside the field of play during a kick
  • Attempting to tackle a runner who has slid or stopped forward progress
  • Tackling after the ball has been blown dead
  • Making forcible contact with an out-of-bounds or unsuspecting opponent
  • Contacting a kicker or punter that does not assume a defensive position
  • Using a helmet or facemask to ram or spear an opponent


PenaltyNFLNCAAHigh SchoolCFL
Unnecessary Roughness15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down15 Yards, Automatic 1st Down

In all leagues and levels of play, the result of an unnecessary roughness penalty is 15 yards and an automatic first down. However, if the officials deem the hit to be “flagrant,” they can eject the offending player from the game.

This rule is slightly different at the NCAA level. If the officials deem the hit to be “targeting,” the penalty is 15 yards and an automatic ejection for the offending player. Targeting is called on any play where there is a hit to the head or neck area of a defenseless player or when contact is initiated with the helmet of the tackler. In high school football, unnecessary roughness is referred to as “illegal personal contact.”

Penalty Signal

Football Penalty Signal Personal Foul

Unnecessary roughness falls under the category of a personal foul. When the penalty occurs, the referee will call a personal foul and make the personal foul signal, which consists of putting one wrist on top of the other, followed by announcing unnecessary roughness.


  • A player initiates contact into the head or neck area of a defenseless player.
  • A player initiates contact with their helmet.
  • A player tackles a ball carrier who has already stepped out of bounds.
  • A player initiates contact into the knee of a snapper on a field goal or PAT attempt.

Similar Penalties To Unnecessary Roughness


What is unnecessary roughness in football?

Unnecessary roughness in football is a penalty that is assessed for excessive physical contact during play. The result of an unnecessary roughness violation is a 15-yard penalty. If a defensive player commits unnecessary roughness, the offense is also awarded an automatic first down. Common examples of unnecessary roughness are late hits and tackling players who are out of bounds or blindsided.

Can you challenge an unnecessary roughness call?

According to the NFL Rules and Regulations, it is not possible to challenge an unnecessary roughness call. Many coaches have objected to this prohibition, as they believe that it is unfair to impose such a heavy 15-yard penalty on a call that cannot be challenged. Additionally, some coaches argue that certain hits determined to be unnecessary roughness do not truly qualify as such and should therefore be challengeable. However, the NFL has not yet permitted unnecessary roughness penalties to be challenged.

When were helmet-to-helmet hits banned in the NFL?

Helmet-to-helmet contact in the NFL was first banned in 1996. Prior to that year, offenders, defenders, and other players were permitted to tackle with their helmets leading. The NFL changed this policy in 1996 after increasing evidence arose that helmet-to-helmet contact carried a high risk of severe head and neck injuries, particularly concussions. The NFL has continually updated its helmet-to-helmet rules since 1996, most recently in 2022, in which the league removed the requirement that helmet-leading contact needed to be initiated by the offending player and not incidental to result in a foul and added that the contact must be “forcible” to result in a penalty.   

Is a late hit penalty considered unnecessary roughness?

A late hit is one of many infractions that are considered unnecessary roughness. After a referee has blown their whistle to stop play, all contact must stop. Tackling, cutting in front of, diving into, jumping onto, and throwing one’s body against another player are all actions that are prohibited after play has stopped. Additionally, players may not make forcible contact with other players that have stepped out of bounds.