What Is Roughing the Kicker in Football? A Rule Explanation


A punter kicking the ball.

Many penalties in football are in place to protect players from injury and all “roughing” penalties fall into this category. In particular, kickers, including both the punter and placekicker, are some of the most vulnerable players on the field.

So, what is roughing the kicker?

Roughing the kicker is a 15-yard penalty that’s assessed against the defense if a defender contacts the plant leg of a kicker while his kicking leg is in the air. When roughing the kicker is called, the kicking team gains 15 yards from the spot of the kick and gets a new set of downs.

While that’s a quick overview of roughing the kicker, there’s a lot more that goes into the penalty. Stick around to learn all there is to know about roughing the kicker!

What Is Roughing the Kicker in Football?

Roughing the kicker is a rule that protects both placekickers and punters from unnecessary hits while in the act of kicking. Roughing the kicker exists because hits on kickers can lead to injuries due to their vulnerability while kicking the ball.

Kickers are essentially defenseless when their kicking leg is in the air and their plant leg is sustaining their weight. If hit while in this position, the chance of injury becomes more likely, and this is why the roughing the kicker penalty exists.

If called, the penalty for roughing the kicker has two components:

  • It is a 15-yard personal foul penalty that is enforced from the spot of the ball.
  • An automatic first down is awarded to the kicking team regardless of what the down and distance were when the foul occurred.

There are also two defined instances when a roughing the kicker penalty can be called. These two instances are:

  • The plant leg of the kicker is contacted by a defender while the kicking leg is still in the air.
  • Both of the kicker’s feet are on the ground but are slid into by a defender with sufficient force to be ruled a roughing penalty.

When in doubt, officials err on the side of caution and call roughing the kicker penalty.

What Is the Roughing the Kicker Rule?

As it applies to the National Football League, the roughing the kicker rule is clearly outlined in the NFL rulebook, “Official Playing Rules of the National Football League.” It is found in “Rule 12. Player Conduct” in “Section 2 – Personal Fouls” and outlined in detail in “Article 12. Roughing/Running Into the Kicker” of that section.

When Did Roughing the Kicker Become a Rule?

The actual term “roughing the kicker” dates back to 1914. Before that, it was known as “running into the fullback after the kick.” The rule was further clarified in 1917 when it was decided that the penalty for roughing the kicker should be measured from the spot where the ball was put into play.

As a point of distinction, it is important to note that the early names for positions on an American football team were derived from rugby union positional names. The fullback in rugby is the player that lines up the furthest behind the backline, which is why he is called the “full-back.” You also had half-backs, quarter-backs, and flankers, which all found their way into American football terminology.

What Is the Signal for Roughing the Kicker?

The signal for roughing the kicker by a referee starts off as the personal foul signal followed by an identifier that took place during a kick. To start off, the referee extends his left arm out with a closed fist. He then takes a close-fisted right hand and uses a chopping motion to place it on his left forearm or wrist.

This indicates a personal foul. The referee finishes the signal by dropping his hands and extending his right foot in a simplified kicking motion to indicate that the foul took place against the kicker.

What are Some Roughing the Kicker Examples?

A college football stadium on a sunny day.

Roughing the kicker is a relatively rare penalty in the NFL. According to nflpenalties.com, there were a total of 75 roughing the kicker penalties enforced between 2009 and 2021. That’s a little less than six such penalties enforced per year. It also equates to one roughing the kicker penalty for every .02 NFL games played during that time period.

Can You Rough the Kicker if You Block the Punt?

The NFL rule states that it is not a roughing the kicker if contact is “incidental” and “occurs after the defender has touched the kick in flight.” So yes, you can “rough” the punter if the ball is touched by the defender first.

Remember that the defender trying to block the punt is playing the ball, not the kicker. If a defender is playing the ball and deflects it, contact is deemed incidental and no penalty is called.

Can Kickers Get Tackled?

Kickers are off-limits to contact, much less getting tackled, by defenders when they are in scrimmage-kick formations and during the time they are executing their kicking duties.

However, there are situations that allow a defender to hit or tackle a kicker without penalty. They all essentially boil down to cases when a kicker doesn’t perform a standard punt or place kick.

If a punter takes off and runs with the ball from the punting formation, he can be hit or tackled at any time, even if he decides to try and punt the ball at the last second before he is hit. If a punter drops a snap, or if he recovers an errant snap and tries to run with the ball, he is fair game to be tackled.

If a kicker or punter attempts a fake kick and tries to pass the ball, they essentially become a quarterback and are governed by the same rules as that position and can be hit or tackled.

Roughing the Kicker vs Running Into the Kicker?

The main difference between these two penalties is the amount of danger a kicker is put in. Contact to a kicker’s plant leg is deemed more serious than contact to the leg and foot that kick the ball. A roughing the kicker penalty is called when the kicker’s plant leg is contacted by a defender.

A running into the kicker penalty is called when a defensive player contacts the actual kicking leg or foot, not the plant leg. It is also called when a defender slides underneath a kicker’s legs and doesn’t allow both of the kickers’ feet to land back on the ground.

The penalty for running into the kicker is only five yards and it doesn’t result in an automatic first down, whereas roughing the kicker is a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down for the kicking team.

What Is Roughing the Snapper?

A long snapper, who is essentially in a defenseless position during snaps, is protected at all levels of football from high school to the NFL.

Any time that a team is in a scrimmage kick formation, a long snapper cannot be contacted until he has had a reasonable opportunity to regain his balance (usually defined as one second) after he snaps the ball.

If he is hit before that time, a 15 yard roughing the snapper penalty is called against the defense and an automatic first down is awarded to the kicking team.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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