what is targeting in football

What Is Targeting In Football?

Did you know that targeting in football is a penalty that can result in a player getting ejected from the game? This type of contact can cause serious injury, which has a heavy penalty. Now, what’s targeting in football? 

Targeting is a dangerous, illegal hit on an opposing player. This blow is often aimed at the head or neck and can cause severe injury. It can lead to concussions, bleeding, broken bones, and more. Targeting is a serious issue, and it needs addressing.

If you’re interested in learning more about targeting in football, read on. We’ll discuss the rule itself and some examples of targeting. We’ll also provide some tips on how to avoid penalization for targeting.

What Is the NFL Rule on Targeting?

The NFL’s targeting rule defines it as using the helmet, elbow, or forearm in unnecessarily contacting a defenseless opponent. Targeting must be above their shoulders.

Suppose the officiating crew determines that a player illegally made contact with an opponent. In that case, he may be subject to a 15-yard penalty and a possible ejection from the game.

In recent years, the NFL has made a concerted effort to enforce this rule to protect players from concussions and other serious injuries. In particular, the league emphasizes avoiding contact with an opponent’s head, neck, or face.

Players must make a “bona fide attempt” to wrap up an opponent with their arms when making a tackle. They should not simply launch themselves at an opponent’s head.

The rule on targeting is just one of several measures the NFL is taking to improve player safety. Others include the introduction of new helmets and face masks, banning certain types of hits, and the concussion protocols.

What Is a Defenseless Player in Football?

Now that we know targeting occurs with defenseless players, who are they? We may consider a player to be defenseless in several cases. These are:

  • A player not in the game
  • A ball carrier sliding feetfirst
  • A player who is on the ground
  • A QB after possession changes
  • A player receiving a blind-side block
  • A player while throwing passes or just after one
  • A kickoff or punt returner who is in the process of catching the ball
  • A carrier in an opponent’s grasp with a hampered forward progress
  • A receiver who has not had time to become a runner after acquiring the ball
  • A runner contacted by an opponent and has not had time to protect himself

So, targeting can occur while defenseless players are on the ground or in the air.

What Is the NCAA Rule on Targeting?

With the NCAA, targeting may lead to a personal foul and automatic disqualification.

american football team action

The game officials may review a player that doesn’t get flagged on the play. If determined to be guilty of targeting, they face the same penalties.

Besides the personal foul and disqualification, the player’s team gets assessed a 15-yard penalty. The player gets suspended for the game’s remaining sessions if the foul occurs in the first half. If it’s the second, one gets off for the game’s remainder and the next one’s first half.

If the player commits three proven targeting fouls in a season, he gets a one-game suspension. The NCAA Rule on targeting is in place to protect players from serious and potentially career-ending injuries.

The rule penalizes players who intentionally target opponents. The regulation also discourages players from using the crown of their helmets as a weapon.

NCAA Rules and Regulations 2022

The NCAA initiated various football regulations in 2022. These aim to improve the targeting rule’s precision and lower blocking under the waist. Additionally, they addressed those that falsify injuries to get an edge.

When a targeting violation happens in the second half of a game with instant replay, the carryover punishment is subject to appeal.

They approved reports and investigations to deal with teams who get an injury timeout by dishonesty. To remedy this, the NCAA looked at various in-game solutions. These included changing the injury timeout rule to allow the injured student-athlete to miss more than one play.

Only stationary backs and linemen inside the tackle box can block below the waist. During scrimmage plays, they also prohibited blocking under the waist beyond the tackle box.

What Is the Penalty for Targeting?

Punishments handed to players and their teams depend on the officiating crew’s judgment. The penalty for targeting in football is a 15-yard penalty. If the deed is brutal, the player may get suspended from the game.

The NFL imposes a single-game suspension on any player found to have targeted opponents thrice in the same season. Suspension is a severe penalty with a significant impact on the outcome of a game. It can lead to a team losing if the ejected player is a crucial part of the team.

The foul may happen in the season’s final game. In such cases, affected players serve the disqualification during either:

  • The postseason
  • The next season’s opening game

Do You Get Disqualified for Targeting in the NFL?

Targeting attracts disqualification from an NFL game based on seriousness. Your team may receive a 15-yard penalty only. Sometimes, you may get ejected from the game besides the 15-yard punishment and be subject to further discipline from the league.

back of a game official watching the game

Targeting is a complicated rule because it’s often a judgment call by the officials. If the officials believe that a player deliberately targeted another player, they will throw a flag, and the player gets penalized. 

If the officials feel that the hit was accidental or that the player wasn’t trying to injure the other player, they may not penalize the player.

Do You Get Disqualified for Targeting in the NCAA?

You can get disqualified for targeting in the NCAA. The rule is that you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders with your helmet, shoulder, or forearm, even if the contact is incidental. Your team receives a 15-yard penalty while you get ejected from the game if you do.

You’ll be automatically suspended for a game’s equivalent if you get disqualified for targeting. You can’t play in the second half if ejected in the first half. If removed in the second half, you won’t play in the first half of the next game.

There are a few instances where players got disqualified for targeting but played the next game. This revocation is because the NCAA has a review process to examine the play and determine if the penalty is justifiable.

Yet, revocation is rare and usually only happens if the player has a clean record.

Examples of Targeting 

There are several indicators of targeting, including:

  • If a player hits a defenseless player.
  • If a player tackles an opponent who doesn’t have the ball
  • If a player launches himself off the ground and into an opponent
  • If a player leads with his helmet or uses any part of his body to butt spear or ram opponents.
  • A squat accompanied by upwards and forward push to attack with violent contact, even if both feet remain on the ground.
  • A player who leaves his feet to strike an opponent using an upward and forward lift of their body to make forceful contact above the shoulders.

There have been some high-profile cases of players earning suspensions for targeting opponents. Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes got suspended in 2012. He targeted Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

In 2013, 49ers’ Ahmad Brooks got ejected from a game after he hit defenseless, Drew Brees, the Saints QB. Ahmad Brooks also received a $15,750 fine.

History of Targeting in Football

Targeting has been a part of football for a while, though its frequency and severity vary over time. 

american football match in the snow

In the sport’s early days, there were few rules governing the game, and players often resorted to whatever means necessary to win. Fewer rules often led to brutal and dangerous play, with players seriously injured.

With the game’s evolution, the rules governing targeting shifted to keep the games secure and entertaining. In the modern era, players are now subject to strict penalties for targeting, including ejection from the match. This rule has helped reduce the incidence of targeting in football.

Here’s a simple summary of the timeline since the rule’s creation:

  1. In 2008, the NCAA enacted the targeting rule to protect players from hits to the head from another player’s helmet crown. Committing the offense resulted in a 15-yard loss.
  2. In 2013, the rule’s revision introduced automatic ejection from the play for those found guilty. This change required ejected players to head to the locker room upon suspension.
  3. From 2019, referees had to use video review to verify or reject a targeting penalty. Another update stated that players with three targeting penalties in a season might face an extra one-game suspension.
  4. A 2020 revision allowed players suspended for targeting to watch the rest of the match.
  5. The latest adjustments in 2022 allow players flagged for targeting during the second half to request an appeal. If determined to be wrongfully penalized, the affected player can play in the next match’s first half.

Is the Targeting Rule Necessary?

The targeting rule in football protects players from concussions and other serious injuries.

The consequences of concussions can be short-term or long-term. Short-term results may include headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and fatigue. Long-term effects may feature problems with memory, sleep, and mood.

In some cases, concussions can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Its signs may include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, and depression.

As a result, the rule cushions players from effect, some of which may prove fatal in the long run.


Some criticize the targeting rule as being too vague or difficult to enforce. But, the NFL makes it clear that it commits to protecting players from dangerous and unnecessary hits.

One of the most controversial aspects of the rule is the “bona fide attempt,” which some feel is too difficult to police. Critics argue that it’s often impossible to tell whether a player is genuinely trying to wrap up an opponent or not.

Also, some believe the rule places an unfair burden on defenders. Still, the NFL defends the aspect, stating that it’s necessary to prevent serious hits.

american football players chasing the ball

Thanks to the targeting rule, concussion numbers in the NFL are lower. In the 2016 season, there was an 11.3% decrease in concussions from the previous year.

It’s impossible to say whether this decrease is due to the rule change or other factors. Still, the NFL’s efforts to improve player safety are positively impacting.


When Was the Targeting Rule Implemented?

The targeting rule came into implementation in 2013. The regulation states that a player can’t hit another player in the head or neck area with their helmet or body parts. If a player targets another player, they may get ejected from the game.

Can Offense Be Called For Targeting?

An offense can get called for targeting. Targeting prohibits players from hitting defenseless players in the head or neck area. That includes hits that occur while the defenseless player is in the air.

If an offensive player targets a defenseless player, it’s a personal foul, and the offense earns a 15-yard penalty. If the offensive player targets a player who is not defenseless, it’s a foul, but not targeting.

Is Helmet-to-Helmet Targeting?

While helmet-to-helmet isn’t targeting, it can still lead to cheque fines against the offending player.

Targeting is when a player deliberately tries to hit another player above the shoulders with the intent to injure. One can commit the foul with any body part, but it’s often seen with the shoulder or head.


A targeting penalty in football is when a player goes beyond making a legal tackle. The player makes contact with an opponent above the shoulders, intending to injure. Since the play can result in serious injury, it results in penalties.

Players may get ejected from the game if they get called for targeting. The NFL limits the penalty to losing 15 yards in accidental and minor targeting cases. Severe cases lead to suspension for the next half.

The NCAA is more strict, with all targeting offenses attracting an ejection, besides losing yards.

Players can avoid targeting penalties by ensuring they don’t lead with their helmets when making a tackle. They should also avoid contact with an opponent’s head or neck area.

Having the right football gear may save you from severe injuries in a targeting attack. That said, check out our list of the best football helmets and get something whose protection you can trust.

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