On the final play of regulation Sunday, Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams appeared to make the TD catch his team needed to force overtime against New Orleans. Williams, though, was flagged for illegal touching -- he was pushed out of bounds by a Saints defender, then was the first player to touch the ball after coming back into play ([si_launchNFLPopup video='2629c76bb0dd4cd19a33fef8df24fdb0']you can watch the play here[/si_launchNFLPopup]).
And even though it's a call (and a particular set of circumstances) that we don't see much, the game's officials appear to have ruled correctly.
Article 8 of the NFL rulebook reads:
It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass (legal or illegal), thrown from behind the line of scrimmage:
(a) is first touched intentionally or is caught by an ineligible offensive player; or
(b) first touches or is caught by an eligible receiver who has gone out of bounds, either of his own volition or by being legally forced out of bounds, and has re-established himself inbounds.
It's point b in question here; Williams clearly stepped out of bounds prior to the touchdown catch.
So why wasn't it a penalty when the Saints knocked Williams from the field of play, well beyond the five-yard window near the line of scrimmage where defenders are permitted to contact receivers?
According to former NFL VP of officiating and current FOX analyst Mike Pereira, the answer is that Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman had left the pocket before throwing his pass -- which takes an illegal contact penalty against the defense off the table.
That rule now might be debated as much as the "catch through completion" rule that cost Calvin Johnson a key TD a couple years back, but the officiating crew led by ref Jerome Bogar appears to have ruled correctly.
Of course, the Buccaneers would not have found themselves in such a dire situation late if not for a dramatic defensive stand by the Saints in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay (which led 21-0 early) trailed 28-21 in the third when Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson hooked up for a fortuitous 95-yard completion. From his own 4-yard line, Freeman unleashed a bomb down the left sideline that made its way to Jackson despite two Saints defenders closing in coverage. Jackson bobbled the ball briefly, then took off for the end zone.
He never made it. Malcolm Jenkins tracked Jackson down just one yard shy of the goal line. The Saints defense -- and some shaky play calling from the Bucs -- then made Jenkins' hustle stand up by stuffing LeGarrette Blount on three straight runs and sacking Josh Freeman on 4th-and-goal.
That dramatic goal line stand kept the Saints in the lead ... and their late penalty-aided stop sealed the deal.
The Buccaneers briefly thought they had scored on the play prior to Williams' illegal-touching call, too. Again, it was Jackson at the heart of things -- he came open in the back of the end zone, only to come down out of bounds after leaping to haul in a Freeman pass.
New Orleans' defense has been, deservedly, much-maligned this season after allowing 30.8 points per game in Weeks 1 through 5. Sunday seemed as if it would be more of the same, as Tampa Bay scored on its first play from scrimmage (after a Drew Brees interception), then found the end zone again on its second and third possessions.
The Saints tightened things up after that, however, shutting out the Bucs from then until a Freeman-to-Dallas Clark TD with 4:10 left in the game.
The difference between New Orleans and Tampa Bay on Sunday was a matter of inches, proven true on a number of occasions: Jenkins' tackle, the Saints' goal-line stand, Jackson's inability to get his feet down in the end zone and, finally, the decisive penalty call. New Orleans will take it -- and the Bucs have little to complain about besides their own inability to finish off their opportunities.