What is the Definition of Interception in American Football?

Interceptions play a crucial role in the outcome of American football games. They occur when a defensive player catches a forward pass intended for an offensive player, halting the offense’s progress and shifting possession to the defender’s team. This crucial event can often change the course of the game, as the defense now becomes offense, and the team causing the interception gains an advantage on the playing field.

Interceptions require keen defensive awareness, quick reflexes, and strategic positioning on the part of the player making the pick. By disrupting the opposing team’s offensive plays, defenders help prevent touchdowns and secure victories for their teams. Famous interceptions in football history have gone down in sports lore, as they showcase the importance of a well-executed defensive strategy and athleticism.

Key Takeaways

  • Interceptions involve defensive players catching passes meant for offensive players, changing possession and affecting game outcomes.
  • Successful interceptions require defensive awareness, reflexes, and strategic positioning.
  • Famous interceptions illustrate the impact of strong defensive plays on the final scores and teams’ overall success.

Fundamentals of Interception

Defensive Positioning

Proper positioning plays a crucial role in executing a successful interception in American Football. Defenders should maintain an optimal distance from the offensive receiver, allowing them to react effectively to any changes in the route or ball trajectory. Additionally, it is essential to keep one’s eyes on the receiver and the ball simultaneously, as this provides the defender with the necessary information to anticipate and react to the pass.

In terms of coverage, defenders can employ various techniques like man-to-man coverage, zone coverage, or a combination of both. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. Man-to-man coverage requires the defender to cover a specific offensive player, while zone coverage assigns the defender to a certain area of the field. Understanding and adapting to the defensive strategy assigned by the coach is vital for players to effectively position themselves for an interception.

Reading the Quarterback

Being able to read the quarterback’s intentions is another critical aspect of making an interception. This skill requires anticipation, and it stems from a deep understanding of the opposing team’s tendencies and patterns. By studying the quarterback’s body language, eye movements, and the alignment of the offensive players, defenders can make educated guesses on when and where the ball will be thrown.

Noteworthy elements for reading the quarterback include:

  • Pre-snap indicators: Before the play begins, the quarterback’s initial alignment and gestures may hint at the type of pass he intends to execute.
  • Stance and footwork: A quarterback’s drop-back depth and footwork could suggest the pass route and timing.
  • Eyes and facial expressions: Reading the quarterback’s eye movement and facial expressions can help defenders identify the intended target.

By gathering all this information, defenders can anticipate where the ball will be thrown and position themselves for a potential interception opportunity, substantially increasing their chances of successfully changing the course of the game.

Key Components of an Interception

Catching the Ball

An interception in American football occurs when a defensive player catches a forward pass thrown by the opposing team’s quarterback or another offensive player. As the pass is in mid-flight, the defender must fully secure the ball in their hands in order for an interception to be considered complete. A strong and confident grasp of the ball is essential in this scenario, helping to avoid any potential fumbles or drops.

Possession and Contact Rules

Once the defender has successfully caught the ball, there are certain guidelines that must be met to ensure a valid interception.

  1. In-bounds: The defender must catch the ball legally in the field of play. This means that both of their feet must touch the field within bounds after intercepting the pass. If they leap into the air to make the interception and one of their feet comes down out of bounds, it will be ruled as an incomplete pass.
  2. Control of the ball: To have a valid interception, the defender must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground. Losing control of the ball during contact with the ground can lead to an incomplete pass ruling.
  3. Avoiding Pass Interference: A defensive player must not physically interfere with the offensive receiver before the ball is caught. This includes actions such as grabbing, holding, or pushing the receiver in an attempt to catch the ball. If pass interference occurs, the interception will not count and the defensive team will receive a penalty.

Following a valid interception, the defensive player may attempt to run towards the opposing team’s end zone in order to gain field position or even score a touchdown. This sudden shift in possession can significantly impact the momentum of the game and often provides a vital opportunity for the defensive team to take control.

Effects on the Game

Change of Possession

An interception in American football occurs when a defensive player catches a forward pass intended for a receiver from the opposing team. This action dramatically shifts the momentum in the game, as it results in a change of possession. The team that intercepted the ball now becomes the offense and has an opportunity to score or advance down the field. In some cases, the intercepting player might choose to down the ball immediately to run out the clock and secure the lead, avoiding any potential fumbles.


Interceptions play a significant role in a player’s and team’s performance statistics. For defensive players, the number of interceptions they make can be a measure of their skill and effectiveness on the field. Teams with a higher interception rate often have a stronger defense, which is crucial for preventing points and maintaining leads. On the flip side, a quarterback with a high interception rate may be perceived as ineffective or error-prone, as this indicates that their passes are frequently intercepted by the opposing team.


While interceptions themselves do not directly result in points, they can lead to scoring opportunities for the intercepting team. After the turnover, the intercepting team has an opportunity to advance the ball and potentially score points through a touchdown or field goal. Moreover, in some cases, the intercepting player might return the ball for a touchdown, known as a “pick-six.” This highlights the importance of interceptions in affecting the score and overall outcome of the game.

Famous Interceptions in History

One of the most memorable interceptions in NFL history occurred during Super Bowl XLIX, when Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots intercepted a pass from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson at the goal line. This play ultimately secured the victory for the Patriots and is still talked about by football fans today.

Another unforgettable interception took place in the 2009 NFC Championship game between the New Orleans Saints and the Minnesota Vikings. With the game tied in overtime, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted a pass from Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, which eventually led to the game-winning field goal and the Saints’ first Super Bowl appearance.

In the realm of college football, one standout interception happened in the 2006 Rose Bowl between the Texas Longhorns and the USC Trojans. With USC going for a fourth-down conversion, Texas safety Michael Huff intercepted a pass from USC quarterback Matt Leinart, which ended up being a pivotal moment in the Longhorns’ victory and their claiming of a national championship.

The Canadian Football League also has its share of historic interceptions. One notable player, Less Browne, holds the all-time record for most interceptions in a career with 87 during his 11-year CFL stint in the 1980s and 90s. His outstanding performance earned him a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

These interceptions are just a few examples of how game-changing and memorable such plays can be in the world of football. Whether at the high school, college, or professional level, interceptions have the power to alter the momentum of a game and impact its outcome in an instant.