Colts defensive end Robert Mathis running through a hold in the preseason. (Scott Cunningham | Getty Images)

One of the most discussed penalties each week in the NFL is holding.  Fans for teams like the Colts who have dynamic pass rushing defensive ends and linebackers are more likely to constantly discuss and complain about players like Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis getting illegally held by opposing offensive linemen who attempt to slow their progress to the quarterback.

The problem is that most fans are not really clear on what offensive linemen are able to do with their hands in the process of blocking pass rushers (sometimes it seems like the officials are unsure too).  Accordingly, debates ensue between fans from the competing teams about whether or not the outcome of the game was impacted by poor officiating that would have otherwise resulted in sacks, turnovers, changes of possession, and would have turned the tide of a game.

The best way to get a full understanding of the rule is to look at the rule itself as it is listed in the NFL rulebook.  You can find the exact language in the rulebook below.

A runner may ward off opponents with his hands and arms but no other player on offense may use hands or arms to obstruct an opponent by grasping with hands, pushing, or encircling any part of his body during a block. Hands (open or closed) can be thrust forward to initially contact an opponent on or outside the opponent’s frame, but the blocker immediately must work to bring his hands on or inside the frame.

Note: Pass blocking: Hand(s) thrust forward that slip outside the body of the defender will be legal if blocker immediately worked to bring them back inside. Hand(s) or arm(s) that encircle a defender—i.e., hook an opponent—are to be considered illegal and officials are to call a foul for holding.

Blocker cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an opponent in a manner that restricts his movement as the play develops.

Hands cannot be thrust forward above the frame to contact an opponent on the neck, face or head.

Breaking down the rule it is clear that grasping with the hands is not allowed.  However, as discussed in Defending Freeney and Mathis, the reality of the situation is that grasping a player under the front of his shoulder pads or grabbing onto the jersey during the initial punch is for all intents and purposes allowed. The reasons are easy to understand.  First, actually calling a penalty on a player for grasping on the initial punch inside the shoulders is next to impossible to catch.  Second, so long as the offensive lineman follows the rest of the rule, which is to adjust his hands after the initial punch, keeping them inside of his shoulders to impede the defender’s progress without continuing to grasp with the hands, will resolve any real issue.

Next, the offensive player who is not carrying the ball is unable to place his hands or arms outside of his own shoulders to impede the forward progress of defenders.  There is some leeway on this rule, relating to the fact that it will be impossible for any offensive lineman who gets beat to one side or another to completely quit blocking and let the defender go unimpeded.  Even if not impossible, it is not desirable for competition and for quarterback or ball carrier safety to not allow the offensive player time to adjust the place of his arms or hands when he gets beat.

Blocks in the back, pulling of the jersey or parts of the defenders body after the offensive player gets beat, along with hooking or encircling the defender outside the offensive or defensive player’s shoulders is not allowed.  These are all examples of offensive players attempting to redirect a defender’s motion in a way other than using arms and hands extended in front of him, making blunt and direct contact to the defender’s body in front of or to the sides of the defender for the purpose of moving the defender from his desired path.

The final rule, and one that has been mentioned multiple times as offensive linemen attempt to block Freeney and Mathis, is no blocking is allowed to the neck, head, or face.  This is important with Freeney and Mathis because both players are very difficult targets to hit and maintain contact for offensive players.  When Freeney spins or Mathis attempts to corner at a 45 degree angle, offensive players will panic and attempt to strike them wildly with their hands to redirect.  When they strike either player in the face, head, or neck, there should be a penalty for illegal use of the hands.

With these rules in mind, it should be easier to spot legitimate holding and differentiate between those penalties and aggressive offensive players who appear beat and find ways of redirecting Freeney and Mathis, or other pass rushers, that fit within the rule.

It is worth noting that although these rules technically describe what is and is not holding or illegal use of the hands, there is another component to how the rules are officiated.  Often the NFL Rules Committee and the head of NFL officials will alter how a rule is emphasized and actively enforced.  One way the technical rule is enforced that is contrary to the way the rule reads is that holding penalties are only called with any regularity when the hold has had an impact on the outcome of the play.  Accordingly, do not expect every hold that you catch that is 15 yards away from the ball to be called when Robert Mathis turns a corner only to find that the running back is running off of left end.

Hopefully this segment of the Colts Academy will help Colts and NFL fans get a better understanding the rules of professional football.  Feel free to discuss the rule and ask any questions you may have.