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Consider a scenario where a receiver runs a post route to the goal line. A linebacker drops back into coverage, jumps, and tips the pass right before the goal line. In the act of deflecting the pass, the linebacker collides with both the intended receiver and another teammate in coverage. His momentum carries him into the endzone as he flies through the air, but the collision knocks him over upon landing. The pass is tipped multiple times by both offensive and defensive players and somehow passes right in front of the linebacker. He lunges from his knees, extends his arms, and catches the ball before it touches the ground. He is not touched by any player after the initial collision.

Can he get up and advance the ball now, or is he down by contact? If he is down, is he down at the 1 yard line (where the contact occurred) or for a touchback (where he caught the ball)? Would changing certain details (like how many players tip the ball) affect the ruling?

  • If he WAS down by contact I believe he would get the ball at the 20 due to his forward progress taking him into the end zone. – Voromir Kadien Feb 12 '18 at 7:12
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Your original question:

Can an intercepting player be down by contact that occurs before the interception?

The answer is NO.

Until the interception is made there is no possession of the ball. Until possession of the ball is established, contact by an opposing player can not result in a player being down by contact. There is often incidental contact between players before a catch and that is not considered the act of tackling because there is not yet possession of the ball. From NFL Rules Section 36, Article 3: Change of Possession:

A change of possession occurs when a player of the defensive team secures possession of a ball that has been kicked, passed, or fumbled by a player of the offensive team, or when the ball is awarded to the opposing team by rule. A change of possession includes, but is not limited to:

An interception of a forward pass

Therefore after possession has changed, the interceptor becomes a new runner and contact must be made by the Offense (in your example) before he gets off the ground.

Can he get up and advance the ball now, or is he down by contact?

If no contact is made after the interception (and thus the change in possession) he may advance the ball until tackled unless he is touched before his body, knee, elbow, etc. are separated from the ground.

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