What Kinds of Tackles Are Illegal in Football?

Football players head to head

In football, players frequently hit, collide with and tackle each other in an effort to achieve the game’s objectives. While most tackles fall within the rules of the game, a few are illegal and will incur a penalty or, if the offending player has committed more than one illegal tackle during a game, immediate ejection.

Facemask Tackles

Although many tackles during a football game involve full body-to-body contact, some involve players grabbing onto any part of the opponent that’s accessible, including jerseys, shoes and pant legs, which is permitted by the rules of the game.

However, making a tackle while touching ​any part of an opponent’s face mask​ is illegal and, when called, results in a penalty against the offending player and team.

Face mask penalties incur a 15-yard penalty.

Prior to 2008, facemask penalties in the NFL and college football fell into two categories: intentional and unintentional. Intentional penalties were assessed 15 yards, while unintentional ones earned a five-yard penalty.

"Horse Collar" Tackles

Football players are allowed to grab onto almost any part of a ball carrier while attempting to make a tackle, but ​not by the back of the jersey’s collar or shoulder pads​.

This tackle is known as a “horse collar” tackle and is illegal. This form of tackling rose to infamy during the 2004 NFL season when Dallas Cowboy safety Roy Williams regularly made these tackles, which resulted in serious injuries to at least four opponents during that season.

NFL owners voted to outlaw the tackling maneuver prior to the 2005 season and the college and high school levels followed suit in 2008 and 2009.

At each level, the “horse collar” tackle earns a 15-yard penalty against the offending team.

Head-First Tackles

Using the top of the helmet, with the face down, to make initial contact on an opposing player while attempting to make a tackle is illegal at all levels of football.

Offending teams are penalized with a 15-yard penalty when these tackles occur.

However, tackles in which the face side of the helmet is used to make initial contact are legal. Referees judge the legality of this type of tackle by whether the tackler’s head is in an upright position or not.

Late Hits

Quarterbacks, punters and placekickers are protected from being hit once the ball has left their possession or while they are in the process of kicking.

Tackles or hits made on a quarterback after he has thrown a pass or handed the ball off are deemed late hits and are punished with a 15-yard penalty.

Placekickers and punters may not be tackled or hit while they are in the process of kicking or punting.

The only exception to this rule is if the kick is blocked by a defender while the kicker is in the process of kicking. These types of hits and tackles are legal.