Ben Roethlisberger spins away from a collapsing pocket and rolls out to his left on third-and-7 on Cleveland’s 8-yard line. As he regains his balance and prepares to throw toward the end zone, Myles Garrett makes a beeline for him. The Browns defensive end takes just one more step after Roethlisberger releases the ball, keeps his head out of the play and wraps both arms around the Steelers QB. They tumble together to the rain-soaked turf, Garrett rolls off to the side and the pass falls incomplete.
Then, a flag flies. Personal foul, roughing the passer, No. 95. Instead of kicking a field goal, the Steelers get first-and-goal on the 4, and promptly score on a James Conner rushing TD. After the penalty, Garrett looks up at the replay on the Jumbotron, and then raises his hands out of confusion. What did I do wrong?
It turns out, nothing. Garrett was flagged under the part of the roughing the passer rule prohibiting a defender from landing on top of the QB with most or all of his body weight. But according to NFL head of officiating Al Riveron, this particular call was a mistake.
“The defender makes contact, and even though there is some body weight on Roethlisberger, most of the body weight is to the side,” Riveron said this week. “He does not land on Ben when he goes to the ground.”
It won’t be a relief to the Browns, who needed every possible point in a game that ended in a 21-21 tie with the Steelers, but it may be some relief to defenders wondering how they’re supposed to rush the passer if what Garrett did was illegal.
Expect to continue to hear about this “body weight” emphasis as the season progresses. The new helmet-lowering rule was the talk of the preseason, but in Week 1 just a single flag was thrown for that offense. Far more prominent were the 15 roughing the passer calls, five of which came because the defender was viewed to have landed on the quarterback with his full body weight. (The others were for hits to the head, low hits or late hits.)
Will that pace continue? Much depends on if, and how, defenders can adapt. While the Garrett call was incorrect, Riveron said the other four body weight calls were accurate: Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett on Nick Foles; Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap’s second roughing the passer penalty on Andrew Luck; Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson against Jimmy Garoppolo; and New Orleans’ David Onyemata’s first flag for hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick, sloughing off the Bucs QB’s helmet in the process. The commanality in each of these plays was that the defender landed flush on top of the QB as they hit the ground, like pieces of sandwich bread. Overall, roughing the passer numbers spiked from the seven called in opening week last season (with one fewer game, as Dolphins-Bucs was rescheduled due to Hurricane Irma), and according to ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast, this was the highest number of roughing the passer calls in any week since 2001.
The body weight provision isn’t new; it’s been a part of the roughing the passer rule since 1995. This season, however, it’s a point of emphasis for officiating crews, going along with a slight wording tweak in the rulebook. Part (b) of the roughing the passer the rule previously read that “a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw [the passer] down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.” In the 2018 rulebook, that “and” became an “or.” Says Riveron, “I wanted to make sure when we looked at it that it didn’t have to be both in order for it to be a foul.”
Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last season when Vikings LB Anthony Barr landed with his full weight on the Packers QB. That play was one of the examples that came up in feedback from teams this past offseason, in reply to a questionnaire sent by the league office. “It came to us from more than a handful of the clubs that they wanted us to put special emphasis when it came to body weight on the QB,” Riveron said.
Losing a QB can ruin a season. Defenders, on the other hand, can lose a lot of money for hitting a QB illegally, and some have expressed frustration over not being sure how to do their job within the rules. After the Bengals’ 34-23 win over the Colts, Dunlap told the Cincinnati Enquirer he “planked and rolled off right away,” and tried to tell the referee he wasn’t trying to be malicious and drive Luck through the ground. The Vikings’ Richardson told the Pioneer-Press in response to his penalty, “It wasn’t dirty. [I] took a step and hit him, perfect-form tackle. What else you want me to do?”
In the Patriots’ locker room on Sunday afternoon, I asked two of their pass rushers, Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, Jr., who each had 1.5 sacks apiece in the season opener, how Bill Belichick and the Patriots coaching staff are teaching their players to avoid body-weight roughing penalties. Both said they’ve been told to roll off, which is what Garrett did with Roethlisberger. “You’ve just gotta fall to the side,” Flowers said. “That’s the way the league is going, so we’ve gotta adapt. It’s a conscious thing … if you’ve got him, let him go, and don’t put your weight on it.” Added Wise: “It’s tough, I’m not going to lie. When you are coming full force, coming to hit somebody, you so happen to lay on them. As long as you don’t pile drive him down or stay on him, as long as you get up, I think that’s what they look for. Not the intentional, I want-to-hurt-you type play.”
It’s also something that’s hard to teach outside of live game action. When asked if the Patriots have done any drills in practice to this end, Wise laughed. “No one is hitting Tom [Brady],” he said. “You kind of just have to be out there and experience it.” The rulebook provides an instruction for defenders, noting they must “strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.” Riveron is well aware of the gripes from defenders, who have to avoid going high, going low, leading with their helmet—and now feel they’re being asked to defy gravity and control how they land.
“We do hear, what do you want me to do?” he says. “Well, you can’t do this, and we have to adjust, because we don’t want to expose our players to unnecessary risk. The [competition] committee felt, because they hear from the clubs, that a passer is in a defenseless posture, and putting this weight on the passer would be an unnecessary risk.”
Riveron adds: “We have the best athletes in the world, the smartest athletes in the world. The same thing was said when we got into player protection of defenseless players ... See where we are now, and how the culture has changed. We can talk in the same light about use of the helmet. Well, we already see a drastic change, a great change for our game and our players, when it comes to unnecessary risk gone from Week 1 of preseason to [Sunday].”
The discussion about the lowering-the-helmet rule hit a fever pitch after 50 violations of the rule were called in the first two weeks of the preseason. After that, the NFL issued a clarification that inadvertent and incidental contact with the helmet and facemask is not a foul, and the number of those penalties plunged.
There’s no clarification for the body weight calls, other than Riveron’s weekly exercise of sending videos with examples of correct and incorrect calls to officials and teams. Garrett’s hit on Roethlisberger will be used as an example of what should have been legal; hits like Jarrett’s, and Dunlap’s, and Richardson’s, and Onyemata’s will be circulated as examples of what’s not permitted.
It’s common for a new rule or a new point of emphasis to draw more flags when first introduced. But the Week 1 results indicate that the body weight point of emphasis may actually be more of an adjustment for both players and officials than the lowering-the-helmet rule—and don’t be surprised if it has more of an impact on the 2018 season.
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