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Roughing-the-passer calls are causing confusion, frustration among NFL players

Roughing-the-passer penalties are up this year in the NFL. Way up.

There’s been 34 such calls through the first three weeks of the season. That’s more than twice as many during the same period last year (16).

Four of them came Monday night during the Pittsburgh Steelers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, with two going against each team, and all of them occurring during the first half.

That total is tied for the most times the penalty has been called in a single game since 1991.

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One of the beneficiaries of some of those calls, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, suggested after the game that things might be getting a bit out of hand.

“There are sure a lot of them,” Roethlisberger said when asked about the roughing-the-passer penalties. “I can’t imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much.”

But, he said, “I don’t want to criticize the officiating, especially when you’re talking about a penalty that helps the quarterback out.”

The league has made roughing-the-passer calls a point of emphasis this season. Much of the focus has fallen on a portion of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 13, which reads: “When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up or cradle the passer with the defensive player’s arms.”

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That’s been a point of frustration for Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, a six-time pick for the Pro Bowl who has been called for roughing the passer in each of the first three games of the season. This week he was called for a tackle of Washington quarterback Alex Smith that seemed pretty textbook to most observers.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) reacts to his penalty after tackling Washington Reds
Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews reacts after being called for roughing the passer for a third straight week.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Retired official Ed Hochuli told USA Today that the play was textbook — textbook for exactly what should be called a penalty with the way the rule is written.

“If you were to ask me to show you a video of what the rule prohibits, I would show you that play,” Hochuli said. “That is the most classic, textbook, exactly, example of the foul of landing on a quarterback with all or most of your body weight.”

But since that part of the rule hasn’t been emphasized until this year, some players are confused about what they can and can’t do anymore.

“That’s a football play. I hit him from the front, got my head across, wrapped up,” Matthews said Sunday of his most recent incident. “I’ve never heard of anybody tackling somebody without any hands. When he gives himself up as soon as you hit him, your body weight is going to go on him.”

He added: “Nine years, I’ve been doing it one way in the NFL, successfully, and now it just seems as if that way doesn’t work anymore. And that’s frustrating.”

Like Roethlisberger, Smith seems to understand some of the frustration.

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“I’m glad I don’t play defense,” he said Sunday.

charles.schilken@latimes.com

Twitter: @chewkiii


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