I try to follow American football as much as I can, but having lived my whole life in Europe it's not something you get exposed to a lot. So I had to decipher the game by myself.

One particular rule that I have always had hard times figuring out is the interference. What I know is that when the QB throws a high/deep ball to a WR, the defender who's running with the WR cannot interfere with the receiver until some arbitrary point.

Seeing as the sport is a physical, contact-based one, how do you defend if you can't really tackle a player going for a touchdown or a major 1st? Could someone explain this rule in plain English (i.e. please no c/p from a rulebook)?

2 Answers 2


It is fairly simple to understand, somewhat harder to referee.

The idea is that when after the ball is in the air following a forward pass, it is a 'loose ball' able to be caught by any eligible receiver. Everyone on the defense is eligible and some offensive players are eligible to attempt to catch the ball.

(The rules for which offensive players are eligible are somewhat complex and not entirely important for this answer, but they include players at the ends of the line of scrimmage, players one yard or more behind the line of scrimmage and someone receiving the ball at the snap hand to hand from the center - usually the quarterback, plus there are a bunch of shirt numbers that are ineligible).

Any of the eligible receivers can make an attempt to catch but you cannot illegally interfere with someone else's attempt to catch the ball, whether you are defense or offense - illegally includes tripping, pulling, pushing or cutting infront of them. Of course this is somewhat hard to referee because two players may hit each other when both legitimately trying to catch the ball.

However it is completely legal to catch or even simply bat the ball away from the other player.

Once the ball is touched by any eligible player, the above restrictions no longer apply and you can tackle the receiver.

  • 1
    Just a minor nitpick--most players on offense are not eligible, at least not until the ball has been touched in flight. Offensive players on the line of scrimmage at the snap except those on either end, as well as the player who threw the pass, are not eligible receivers--that's at least six, leaving at most five eligible. Of course, once the ball is touched in flight by an eligible receiver everyone on the field immediately becomes eligible.
    – Steely Dan
    Jun 1, 2012 at 17:48
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    And it also bears making explicit what you very clearly implied--since a defensive player is also an eligible receiver, it is possible for an offensive player to commit interference against a defensive player by performing the same set of actions as you describe above.
    – Steely Dan
    Jun 1, 2012 at 17:50
  • @SteelyDan - good comments, I will make that explicit Jun 1, 2012 at 20:05

Basically, the rule is that you must play the ball, and not the man, until someone catches the ball. This applies to both offensive and defensive players.

So a player can do anything in relation to the BALL, either catch it, or bat it away from his opponent, but the player cannot do anything to the opponent, such as blocking, tackling, holding, or even touching to prevent him from catching the ball. Doing so is "interference."

Until someone actually touches the ball.

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