Dirty Laundry: 'Roughing' Roethlisberger

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Detroit fans received a rude education Sunday on the NFL’s heightened interest in quarterback safety. Edward of Detroit led off our SportsNation chat with a question about the second-quarter roughing call that reversed a Lions interception and ultimately led to Pittsburgh taking a 14-6 lead at Ford Field.

Here was the situation: The Steelers faced a third-and-4 at the Lions’ 45-yard line. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's pass to receiver Hines Ward was intercepted by Eric King at the 41-yard line. But referee Ed Hochuli whistled Lions defensive tackle Landon Cohen for a roughing penalty, returning the ball to the Steelers 15 yards downfield. Five plays later, Pittsburgh extended its lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller.

When you watch the replay, you see Cohen take an inside spin move and get past Steelers right guard Trai Essex. Just after the ball is released, Cohen swipes his right arm on Roethlisberger’s left knee as he dives to the ground. Roethlisberger falls awkwardly, in part because of the traffic around him.

A year ago, Cohen almost certainly wouldn’t have been penalized. But as you probably know, the NFL strengthened its roughing-the-passer rules this offseason in response to New England quarterback Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury in 2008. Here is the relevant addition to the rules:

A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.

Essex gives Cohen a light shove just before contact with Roethlisberger, which some fans might consider a mitigating circumstance. But as you can see from the wording above, it’s now almost irrelevant if you’re blocked into the quarterback. It might not look like roughing or seem particularly egregious in the course of an NFL game. But the way I read it, Cohen absolutely was in violation of the rule as now constituted.

You can criticize the league for putting defensive players in a near-impossible situation. But unfortunately for the Lions, Hochuli made the right call based on the new rule.

Now, for our Challenge Tracker, which went unchanged this week: