Should St. Louis's Mark Barron have been penalized for the hit that knocked Ben Roethlisberger from Sunday's game with a knee injury? The NFL rule book says ... maybe. Turns out that the league's convoluted language regarding what constitutes a catch is not the only spot of the book where there is a confusing grey area.
For starters, here is the play in question:
The rule book states that “a rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground,” which Roethlisberger did in this case. Since Barron was not blocked into Roethlisberger, the subsequent line clearing defenders in that circumstance are inconsequential for this discussion.
The call (or lack thereof, in this case) gets tricky because of the notes tacked on to Rule 12, section 2, article 9:
(1) A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.
(2) It is not a foul if the defender swipes, wraps, or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle him.
Barron definitely initiated the hit by stumbling toward Roethlisberger's feet. However, addendum No. 2 allows for a player to “swipe” at a passer. Former NFL VP of officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for FOX, explained in a video that he believed Barron deserved a flag, but even he left room open for discussion.
“The question is going to be now, did he reach with his arm and swipe? Or did the shoulder hit Ben's ankle and is that what caused the injury?” Pereira said. “Now, they've gotta get the All-22 tape ... and look at all the angles. But in my opinion, he lunged into the ankle with the shoulder, and I think it was forcible contact. So, to me, I think it's a foul.”
Another aspect of this play: Roethlisberger stepped into the contact while trying to escape pressure. This variable does not clear Barron, because Roethlisberger was still considered a “passer” at the time.
The rule is in place for a reason: Quarterbacks have been injured—badly, on occasion—by defenders hitting them low while they have a foot planted. Pittsburgh knocked then-Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer from a game with just such a hit. And Tom Brady suffered a season-ending injury on a similar play. It was shortly after the latter that the league addressed this type of contact.
Given how out of the way the NFL has gone to protect its quarterbacks, the lack of a flag on Barron is borderline stunning, especially since it was clear that he was not blocked into Roethlisberger.
But, again, this an ongoing problem with the rule book.
As Pereira said, it looked like a penalty—not a cheap shot, but a penalty. A falling Barron did not appear to throw himself into Roethlisberger's leg with malicious intent, but he did clearly hit the Steelers' QB low, leaving Roethlisberger with little means of protecting himself.
Unfortunately, how a play “looks” does not always fall under clear, unquestioned jurisdiction of the rule book. Far too much within that document is confusing to the point of being ridiculous. This is just another example. How is an NFL official supposed to determine live, at full speed, whether or not a defender hit a QB with his arm or shoulder when experts cannot even make that determination with multiple replay looks? From the angle shown above, Barron certainly could make an argument that he clipped Roethlisberger with an arm first, then the shoulder.
The end result matters little in the grand scheme of things. Roethlisberger left the game and the Steelers won, despite not earning a first down via penalty on this particular play. An MRI later on Sunday revealed that Roethlisberger sprained his MCL and is expected to require at least a four-week recovery, according to CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora.
We'll see if the league helps clear up the murky situation at all in the coming days.
From the SI.com Photo Archives
Mouse over a photo to get a pop-up view; click on a link to go to the gallery.