There is an old saying about watching football that goes something like this: You could call a holding penalty on every single play.
Complaining about officiating is nothing new in the world of sports, and it is not isolated to football. Dip your toes into the world of F1 for example, and you will see fans of Lewis Hamilton fighting with fans of Max Verstappen about the end of the 2021 season to this very day. In fact, we can determine with precision the first time a fan complained about a penalty in a sport:
Right after the first penalty was called.
Returning to football, holding is the area that fans often point to highlight either bad calls, non-calls, or even both. That is certainly the case after the 2023 AFC Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, with fans clamoring for perhaps two holding penalties on a pivotal play in the fourth quarter.
So we thought it would be a good time to revisit the holding penalty, and in particular, the carveout in the NFL rules regarding a “rip move.” Specifically, what is the exception? What is a rip move, and what does this all look like on the field?
The rip-move exception in the NFL rules
Perhaps it is the old lawyer in me, but anytime a discussion like this begins, it is wise to turn to the NFL rulebook, the sport’s version of “black letter law.”
Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3 defines offensive holding. That penalty occurs when an offensive player:
Use his hands or arms to materially restrict an opponent or alter the defender’s path or angle of pursuit. It is a foul regardless of whether the blocker’s hands are inside or outside the frame of the defender’s body. Material restrictions include but are not limited to:
1. grabbing or tackling an opponent;
2. hooking, jerking, twisting, or turning him; or
3. pulling him to the ground.
Simple enough, right? Well, this is the NFL, and we’re still trying to figure out what a catch is and using two sticks and a chain to measure 10 yards so … it’s a little more complicated than that.
Diving deeper into Rule 12, there are exceptions for when holding will be called. It will not be called, for example, “if the runner is being tackled simultaneously by any defensive player.” Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.a. Holding will not be called “if the runner simultaneously goes out of bounds.” Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.b. Holding will not be called “if the action clearly occurs after a forward pass has been thrown to a receiver beyond the line of scrimmage.” Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.d. There is no holding penalty “if the action occurs away from the point of attack and not within close line play.” Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.e.
There are also two exceptions to the holding rule that involve line technique. The first comes courtesy of Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.h: “[i]f the action is part of a double-team block, unless the defender splits the double team, gets to the outside of either blocker or is taken to the ground.”
Then there is the second holding exception which involves specifically defensive line technique. Holding will not be called “if, during a defensive charge, a defensive player uses a ‘rip’ technique that puts an offensive player in a position that would normally be holding.” Rule 12, Section 1, Article 3, Note 1.i.
You will note that there is even an exception to this exception, according to the rules. Holding “will be called if the defender’s feet are taken away from him by the blocker’s action.”
So, clear enough, right?
But, just one more question, as Columbo liked to say.
What the heck is a rip technique?
The rip technique
Defensive linemen have a number of tools at their disposal when trying to deconstruct blocks. Whether rushing the passer or fitting against the run, defenders have a few technical moves to aid in the effort.
One such move is the bull rush, which is a power move wherein the defender tries to overwhelm the blocker by making contact with both arms in an effort to drive them back, establish control over the blocker, and then flow to either the ball carrier or the quarterback.
Another is the swim move, sometimes termed the “arm-over”, where the defender makes initial contact with the blocker, and gets by them with speed, raising one of their arms over the shoulder and/or helmet of the blocker, much like a swimmer’s stroke. Here is a video from the NFL highlighting a swim move from Aaron Donald.
Then there is the rip move, which is the focus of our discussion here. When using a rip move, a defender, after engaging with the blocker, drives their inside arm upward, like throwing an uppercut. The goal is to take control of the blocker, leave them unbalanced, and then disengage by taking advantage of the leverage created by the rip move. If done correctly, the blocker’s hands will be forced out of position, and the defender gains the advantage.
For more on the rip move, here is part of a clinic presentation given by Dennis Dottin-Carter, now the Assistant Head Coach, Co-Defensive Coordinator, and Defensive Line Coach at Yale. Back in 2014 while he was at the University of Delaware he gave a clinic presentation on “Defensive Lineman Setting the Tone” and talked about various techniques, including the rip move:
When we use the rip, we step with the near foot and work to a low football position (“grab grass”) by bending the knees. At the same time, getting skinny by turning the shoulders, driving the near arm in an upward motion, and driving the opposite knee through. Finish by working your feet and hips through and to the quarterback.
Here are some examples of rip moves, first from Myles Garrett off the right edge of the offense from earlier in the season. Watch as he works around the right tackle, and fires his right arm upward with his rip move:
Stab-club-rip strip sack pic.twitter.com/T2Pnw5m8jz— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 18, 2022
In this play from 2020, Joey Bosa gets around Tristian Wirfs with a rip move late in the down:
As good as Wirfs was on Sunday Bosa still got him a couple of times. This was an incredible rep from him. Watch him trap Wirfs' wrist, hop, and step through with his (4th) inside step + rip to capture the corner. ELITE. pic.twitter.com/3qi3DozbIf— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) October 5, 2020
Finally, here is an example from J.J. Watt, back when he was with the Houston Texans. Watch as he fires his left arm upward, gains the leverage advantage over the blocker, and gets to Josh Allen:
.@JJWatt gets to the QB again #WeAreTexans— NFL (@NFL) January 5, 2020
: #BUFvsHOU on ESPN/ABC
: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app
Watch free on mobile: https://t.co/g2IubuwcCg pic.twitter.com/N9r9Hkusqm
So, now we have a better idea of what the rip move is. As you can see in these examples, the rip move works to disengage the blocker’s hands, putting them in a position where you would often see holding calls. But, since that is how the move works, it would be an unfair advantage for the defense if this drew a holding penalty every time it was used. Otherwise, defenders would use it on every down and put offenses into 3rd and 60 on each drive.
Thus, the exception.
As noted, there is still an exception to the exception. If the rip move ends with the defender losing his feet because of “the blocker’s action,” then a flag will fall. Here is one such example:
Here's a good example of when a rip draws a flag. Whitworth pulls Gary down as he hits Stafford. Gary is DE to the far right. pic.twitter.com/qEHiNi73uY— Rich (@richjmadrid) November 30, 2021
Rashan Gary uses a rip move against Andrew Whitworth, and when the left tackle tries to run him outside the pocket, Gary loses his feet. The penalty flag falls.
This is also a good time to mention you should be following both Brandon Thorn and Rich Madrid, who are really smart.
The end of the 2023 AFC Championship Game
Now, we turn to the end of the AFC Championship Game between the Bengals and the Chiefs.
Officiating dominated the discussion in the wake of Kansas City’s win, and there were a number of puzzling moments during the game, most notably a third-down play that should not have happened, did happen, and then was re-done.
Then there was the penalty on Joseph Ossai at the end of the game, when he hit Patrick Mahomes while the QB was out of bounds, setting the Chiefs up for the game-winning field goal. But after that play happened, many wondered why the Chiefs were not flagged for holding on the play.
Because of the rip-move exception.
Here is the play, and pay attention to both the left tackle and the right guard:
On the left edge, Sam Hubbard works against left tackle Orlando Brown. On the inside, B.J. Hill works against right guard Trey Smith. Both Hubbard and Hill use rip moves near the end of their rush, and they work as intended, moving the blockers’ hands.
But, as we now know, that is permitted within the rulebook, and not considered holding. And since neither blocker was taken off their feet, there was no flag.
There is also another aspect to this, pointed out by former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz: The blockers stayed between the QB and the pass rushers, which contributes to the non-calls:
You could not ask Brown to have his hands in better position. The defender dips to avoid the chip. Brown is bigger and stronger. He locks him up.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 30, 2023
Hill goes w/a rip move on Smith. A rip move is NOT a holding until the OL get's behind the DL. OL stays between DT and QB. https://t.co/b58tfTTIDf
Nate Tice, another brilliant analyst — and a better college quarterback than I was — noted the exception as well:
My guess here is the refs didn’t call anything here because of the rip moves being used by the Bengals defenders. Which basically nullifies what would typically be considered a hold. https://t.co/crUwwtaLOr— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 30, 2023
So, there you go. It looks like holding at first blush, but because the rip move is designed to get the blocker’s hands in an awkward position, the NFL carved out an exception to the holding penalty.
Now if someone could just tell me what a catch is, that would be great.