Defensive holding is called when a defender grabs an offensive player, or their jersey, or when they wrap their arms around the offensive player before a pass is thrown. The penalty for defensive holding is five yards and an automatic first down for the offense.
Holding is called when the defender obstructs the offensive player from moving. Defensive pass interference, comparatively, takes place after the ball has been thrown, and when a defender impedes the offensive player’s chance to make a play on the ball. Per the NFL Rulebook, it is a defensive holding penalty if: “A defensive player tackles or holds any opponent other than a runner.” Defensive holding penalties are not as costly in terms of yardage as pass interference, which places the ball at the spot of the foul, but is still very tough on a defense because of the automatic first down.
One example of defensive holding can be seen below, courtesy of Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall in Week 2 of 2016 against the Indianapolis Colts. With 14:13 remaining in the third quarter, Marshall (#54) is tasked with covering Colts tight end Dwayne Allen (#83) on an out and up route. Marshall is fooled by the first cut and uses his arm to hook Allen around the waist to prevent him from breaking open downfield.
Because this takes place before the ball is thrown it is considered holding rather than pass interference. Marshall slowed Allen down with his arm and cost the Broncos five yards and gave the Colts an automatic first down.
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Defensive holding is a common penalty among the defense’s back seven players, and is called when holding, grabbing, tackling or hooking with an arm occurs before the pass is thrown.