What Is Holding in Football? A Complete Guide to the Rule


A Navy player holds a West Point player.

Football has a lot of penalties, and one of the most commonly called ones is holding. The penalty for holding depends on which team commits it, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves…

What is holding in football?

Holding is a penalty in football where a player illegally restricts the movement of another player who is not holding the ball. Offensive holding is a 10-yard penalty and a replay of the down, while defensive holding is a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the offense.

This article explains the difference between offensive and defensive holding, the rules of holding, and how holding penalties are enforced. It also talks about how holding is called and enforced in college football, and whether or not holding is a loss of down.

What Is Offensive Holding in Football?

The first holding penalty we’ll discuss is offensive holding. Offensive holding is when a player on the offense restricts a player on the defense by grabbing or tackling them in a way that prevents them from defending. It doesn’t matter if the offensive player’s hands are inside or outside the defender’s frame during the play.

While there are many variations of offensive holding, there are a few common ways that it occurs. Most offensive holding penalties involve the player grabbing either the defender’s body or jersey to prevent them from moving. The most obvious example of offensive holding is when the offensive tackles a defender or completely brings them to the ground.

What Is Defensive Holding in Football?

The other type of holding is defensive holding. Opposite of offensive holding, defensive holding occurs when a player on the defense holds and restricts any player on the offense who is not holding the ball or actively running to catch a pass.

If the defense tackles or holds the player with the ball or a player who is running intending to catch the ball, there is no defensive holding penalty (although there could be other penalties called on the play).

So, if a defensive player grabs, restricts, or tackles any other player, there will be a defensive holding penalty called on the play.

Pass interference is a penalty that often gets confused with holding. Here’s the NFL definition of pass interference:

It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line.

Pass interference happens when the penalty is committed against a player who is actively trying to catch the ball, whereas holding occurs before the pass and is committed against a player who is not attempting to catch the ball.

Examples of Holding in Football

There are many situations in which holding can be called during a football game. Since it is such a common penalty, there are some types of holding that happen frequently.

The NFL has a video that provides four common examples of offensive holding. Here are the four examples they use:

  • Grabbing and tackling an opponent;
  • Hooking or twisting the opponent;
  • Grabbing and turning the opponent;
  • Pulling them to the ground

The NFL also has a video about defensive holding penalties and when they occur. Here are the three scenarios that they use to explain defensive holding:

  • A defensive player holds an eligible receiver attempting to run a route;
  • A defensive player grabs the opponent’s jersey;
  • A defensive player holds an offensive player preventing him from carrying out a block

These aren’t the only ways in which a holding penalty occurs but they’re the most common. The referees have the final say on what is and isn’t a holding penalty by each team.

NFL Holding Rules

Aerial view of Sports Authority Field.

The NFL has a lot of details on offensive holding penalties in their rulebook since they’re so common. Here is the offensive holding rule per the NFL:

[An offensive blocker] Use[s] his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body. Material restrictions include but are not limited to:

1. grabbing or tackling an opponent;

2. hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or

3. pulling him to the ground.

The three types of holding listed above are the most common situations in which holding occurs in the NFL. But, there are many other situations when holding can happen.

There are also exceptions to the offensive holding rule in which the offense can legally restrict a defensive player, and holding will not be called.

There are exceptions to offensive holding per the NFL Rules:

When a defensive player is held by an offensive player during the following situations, Offensive Holding will not be called:

  1. if the runner is being tackled simultaneously by another defensive player;
  2. if the runner simultaneously goes out of bounds;
  3. if a Fair Catch is made simultaneously;
  4. if the action clearly occurs after a forward pass has been thrown to a receiver beyond the line of scrimmage;
  5. if the action occurs away from the point of attack and not within close line play;
  6. if a free kick results in a touchback;
  7. if a scrimmage kick simultaneously becomes a touchback;
  8. if the action is part of a double-team block, unless the defender splits the double team, gets to the outside of either blocker, or is taken to the ground; or
  9. if, during a defensive charge, a defensive player uses a “rip” technique that puts an offensive player in a position that would normally be holding.

Exception: Holding will be called if the defender’s feet are taken away from him by the blocker’s action.

The other type of holding penalty is by the defense. Defensive holding occurs relatively often, just like offensive holding.

Here is the NFL Rule for defensive holding in football:

It is defensive holding if a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him. See 12-1-6.

Penalty: For holding by the defense: Loss of five yards and automatic first down.

Note: Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball, and/or one to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball, may be tackled until he crosses the line of scrimmage between the offensive tackles of a normal tight offensive line.

What Is the Penalty for Holding?

The penalty for holding depends on if it’s offensive or defensive.

For offensive holding, the penalty is a loss of 10 yards. There is no loss of down for offensive holding, so the ball is moved back 10 yards from the original spot of the ball and the down is replayed.

But, if there is an offensive holding penalty and less than 20 yards left to the goal line, the offense will move up half the distance to the goal, not 10 yards.

For example, the offense is 14 yards away from the goal line when the defense commits a holding penalty on the play. Since they are less than 20 yards away from the goal line, the penalty will result in the ball being moved up seven yards instead of 10. The next play will start with a first down at the seven-yard line.

Here is the defensive holding penalty per the NFL Rulebook:

(a) A defensive player tackles or holds any opponent other than a runner, except as permitted as a legal use of hands or arms by defense.

Note: Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball, and/or one to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball, may be tackled until he crosses the line of scrimmage between the tackles of a normal tight offensive line.

(b) during a punt, field goal attempt, or Try-kick attempt, B1 grabs and pulls an offensive player out of the way, allowing B2 to shoot the gap (pull-and-shoot) in an attempt to block an apparent kick, except if B1 is advancing toward the kicker.

Penalty: For defensive holding: Loss of five yards and an automatic first down.

So, if the defense commits a holding penalty, the line of scrimmage will move five yards forward (in the offense’s favor), and the play will begin with a first down. The exception to this rule is if the penalty occurs within 10 yards of the goal line. Instead of moving the ball up five yards, the ball will move up half the distance to the goal.

Holding penalties can be declined by the team they’re committed against. This tends to happen when the result of enforcing the penalty is worse than the result of the play.

Here is what the NFL rulebook says about declining penalties and an example of this:

Unless expressly prohibited, the penalty for any foul may be declined by the offended team, and play proceeds as though no foul had been committed. The yardage distance for any penalty may be declined, even though the penalty is accepted.

Note: If the defensive team commits a foul during an unsuccessful Try, the offensive team may decline the distance penalty, and the down is replayed from the previous spot.

If the team declines the holding penalty, play resumes as if there was no penalty.

What Is the Signal for Holding?

A football referee looks on during a play.

The signal for defensive and offensive holding is the same. The referee will take one hand and grab their opposite wrist to signal a holding penalty.

They will then state the player and team that committed the holding penalty, so the signal can be the same for both offensive and defensive holding.

What Is Considered Holding in College Football?

Holding in college football is similar to that of holding in the NFL for both offense and defense.

Here is the NCAA’s definition of holding:

Illegal use of the hand or arm is unfair play, eliminates skill and does not belong in the game. The object of the game is to advance the ball by strategy, skill and speed without illegally holding your opponent. All coaches and players should thoroughly understand the rules for proper offensive and defensive use of the hands. Holding is a frequently called penalty; it is important to emphasize the severity of the penalty.

The penalty for offensive holding in college football is the same as in the NFL: 10 yards.

However, the penalty for defensive holding in college football differs from that of the NFL.

For defensive holding, the penalty awards the offense even more yards than the NFL. When a defensive holding is called in college football, the offense gains 10 yards and receives an automatic first down.

Just like in the NFL, these penalties will be enforced half the distance to the goal when they’re within 20 yards of the goal line. Holding penalties can also be declined by the team against whom the other team committed the penalty.

Is Holding a Loss of Down?

Offensive holding doesn’t result in a loss of down. The penalty for offensive holding is 10 yards, and the down is repeated.

For example, if the ball is on the 50-yard line and it’s 2nd down and five, and offensive holding is committed, the line of scrimmage moves back 10 yards to the offense’s 40-yard line, and they replay 2nd down. The next play is 2nd down and 15.

But defensive holding gives the offense an automatic first down and a gain of five. So, say the play is 3rd down and nine at the defense’s 40-yard line when the defense commits a holding penalty on the play. The offense starts the next play with a first down on the 35-yard line.

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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