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NFL roughing the passer penalties were less of disaster in Week 4

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The league’s halfway step to solving its latest penalty problem may have worked.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Earlier in the week, the NFL’s competition committee declined to change the rewritten language that’s led to a surge of roughing the passer flags in 2018. It did, however, clarify what should and shouldn’t be called with an unhelpful video and allowed its officials greater autonomy when it came to calling the play on the field.

And it may have been a useful solution.

Defensive players were flagged for roughing the passer just five times through 14 games in Week 4. That’s the lowest single week total in the league so far — though there’s still one more game to be played Monday night — and fewer than half the roughing flags called in Week 3.

Roughing the passer penalties by week, 2018

Week Games Roughing the Passer flags Roughing flags per game
Week Games Roughing the Passer flags Roughing flags per game
1 16 15 0.94
2 16 6 0.38
3 16 12 0.75
4 14 5 0.36

How did the NFL change its stance on roughing penalties?

Well, it didn’t, officially. The rule about landing on a quarterback with your body weight has been on the books prior to 2017 and wasn’t changed for 2018. Here’s what it reads:

A rushing defender is prohibited from committing such intimidating and punishing acts as “stuffing” a passer into the ground or unnecessarily wrestling or driving him down after the passer has thrown the ball, even if the rusher makes his initial contact with the passer within the one-step limitation provided for in (a) above. 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 or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player 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.

That piece of league scripture was emphasized this past offseason after Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone after being flattened by Anthony Barr in a Week 5 showdown with the Vikings. The tackle didn’t draw a flag that day, but it did effectively erase the Packers’ playoff streak and took one of the game’s top players off the field, earning some scrutiny from the league in the process.

That led to a glut of roughing the passer flags. Officials had averaged 11 roughing penalties over the first three weeks of the 2018 season. In 2017, that figure was 6.2. In 2016, it was five. Even if Week 4’s tweak holds steady, 2018 could still wind up the most penalized season of the past decade.

Roughing the passer penalties per week, 2009-2018

Year Roughing penalties Roughing penalties per week
Year Roughing penalties Roughing penalties per week
2018 38 9.50
2017 106 6.24
2016 85 5.00
2015 99 5.82
2014 97 5.71
2013 89 5.24
2012 88 5.18
2011 98 5.76
2010 77 4.53
2009 65 3.82

Ironically, the team that’s been hurt most by this three-week emphasis may have been the Packers. Green Bay’s Clay Matthews was responsible for nine percent of the league’s roughing calls over the first three weeks, two of which were plays that looked a lot like regular football tackles and one of which was a play that turned a surefire Packer victory into a tie against arch rival Minnesota.

With time winding down against the Vikings in a 29-21 game, Matthews’ pressure helped force Kirk Cousins into a bad interception downfield. His wayward pass would have set Green Bay up at the Minnesota 18 yard line with 1:37 to play needing just a short field goal to seal the game. Instead, officials deemed this play too violent, giving the Vikings new hope and setting the stage for a 29-29 tie in Wisconsin:

But on Sunday, Matthews was finally able to get to the quarterback without being caught in a hailstorm of handkerchiefs. He wrapped up Bills passer Josh Allen for his first half-sack of the season in a 22-0 win in Week 4.

Does this mean the league’s roughing problems are solved?

It’s too soon to tell, but it’s a good start, other than this shaky call in the Browns-Raiders game:

Arden Key wasn’t flagged because of the body weight rule, but it’s still a weak interpretation of roughing the passer.

But take away that one and three from Sunday’s Chargers-49ers game, and you’ve got just one roughing call over a 13-game slate. That’s much more in line with what the league and its competition committee would like to see.

The reduction in calls is the result of two factors. Pass rushers have been wary to go full force at quarterbacks since this new emphasis, with some dire results. Dolphins defensive end William Hayes attributes his season-ending torn ACL to a play where he shifted his body in an unnatural way to avoid landing on Raiders QB Derek Carr with the bulk of his weight. Even so, Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent was eager to tweet out video of the plays that didn’t earn roughing flags Sunday, praising plays for adjusting to the rules and showcasing how teams can avoid personal fouls moving forward.

But league officials were less eager to throw flags on big hits in the pocket in Week 4. There were 74 sacks on Thursday and Sunday. Only one was overturned due to a roughing penalty (Carl Lawson’s third quarter strip sack against the Falcons). That’s a step in the right direction for the league — the important thing now will be turning one week into a trend.