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Richard Sherman legally leveled a Bills receiver on Buffalo's last play

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It looked like illegal contact, but there was nothing illegal about it.

Monday Night Football was dramatic this week. With the Seahawks leading the Bills, 31-25, and 20 seconds left, Buffalo faced a fourth-and-goal from the Seattle 15-yard line.

The Seahawks got pressure on Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who threw a desperation ball toward the end zone that fell incomplete. Game over, and a big win for the Seahawks. But it looked, initially, like Buffalo had gotten a raw deal.

While Taylor searched for a receiver, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman put a heavy hit on Buffalo wideout Walter Powell. Because Powell was clearly beyond the five-yard zone where defensive backs can freely contact receivers, a question quickly circulated around Twitter: Why hadn’t Sherman been flagged for illegal contact?

The NFL’s officials, though, got this right. The league’s five-yard jam zone only applies when the quarterback remains inside his pocket.

From Rule 8, Section 4 of the NFL’s rulebook. Bolding is mine:

Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.

Taylor was clearly gone from the pocket.

Let’s focus in, a bit, on the relevant moment:

That’s decidedly not the pocket. The pocket is “the area between the outside edges” of Buffalo’s tackles, and even though the Bills snap from the left hashmark, Taylor’s well beyond any reasonable definition of the pocket.

There’s a provision in the rule that if the defender “maintains contact” with the receiver beyond the five-yard space, the defender needs to release him. But Sherman never grabs or latches onto Powell at all. He just crushes him, and with Taylor outside the pocket, it’s open season for Sherman to do just that. And Sherman knows that because he knows the rules as well as anyone.

Is there an “unnecessary roughness” case against Sherman? One can only be made if Powell’s “out of the play” or shouldn’t reasonably expect to get hit. Taylor’s scrambling ability and Powell’s move toward the center of the field make that a hard sell, though. A lot still could’ve happened in that circumstance, and Sherman only kept playing.