It’s not uncommon for the NFL to ask on-field officials to focus on a certain area of the game heading into a given season and the 2022 campaign is no exception. The league has asked on-field officials to pay special attention to illegal contact fouls on defensive players, a league spokesperson told ESPN.
According to NFL Football Operations, contact is legal between a defender and an eligible receiver, so long as he remains in front of him and that contact remains unbroken within five yards of the line of scrimmage. However, if a defender contacts a receiver within the five-yard zone, loses contact, and then contacts him again still within the five-yard zone, it is a foul for illegal contact.
Once that five-yard zone is breached, the defender must break that contact. As long as the player who receives that snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver. While incidental contact beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage is allowed, a defender may use his hands only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by the receiver.
This new point of emphasis — or as the league now calls it “points of clarification” — could result in an uptick in such flags after a 2021 season that saw a significant drop-off. Between 2002 and 2020, illegal contact was called an average of 97 times per season. In 2021, that number dropped to 36. There are recent examples that point to the likelihood of more flags of this nature being called this year. After just 52 illegal contact penalties were called in 2013, the league made it a point of emphasis to its officials and that number rose to 148 flags in 2014. In 2004, that number increased to 191 flags after just 79 in 2003.
Along with this point of clarification for illegal contact, the NFL has also asked officials to pay particular attention to roughing the passer fouls, which we saw come into play immediately during the Hall of Fame Game between the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars. On the first play of the game, No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker was flagged for roughing the passer on Jarrett Stidham.
While officiating crews will make their annual visits to training camps this summer to update teams on the new rules and points of clarification, it will be interesting to see how many flags will be called as the 2022 season unfolds.