NFL Nation: Inside Slant

For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

During the season, I've tried to glean some key tendencies of NFL referee crews. We've looked several times at how they responded to the 2014 points of emphasis, while also noting the wide range of frequencies between crews on offensive holding and even pre-snap movement penalties.

This week, in response to demand and as my early holiday present to you, I deliver the 15-week breakdown of most major penalty categories. Many thanks to blog editor Jonathan Hudec for putting together this monstrosity Friday morning.

Below are a few thoughts from me on the numbers. Feel free to draw your own conclusions as well. Remember, frequency does not necessarily correlate with accuracy. It's just a reminder that -- much like umpires in baseball -- crews have their own ways of seeing the game.

  • Aggressive defenses are best off with the crews of either Brad Allen or Walt Coleman, who have called a total of eight and 11 combined penalties for defensive holding or illegal contact, respectively. John Parry's crew (41) has been the most active here, followed by Terry McAulay (40).
  • Offensive linemen likely prefer Bill Vinovich's crew, which has called holding 23 times. Ronald Torbert's crew (47) and Parry's (46) have called the most.
  • You had better behave around Gene Steratore's crew, which has called an NFL-high 19 unnecessary roughness penalties. Clete Blakeman's crew has called five.
  • Illegal use of hands, a less publicized point of emphasis this season, has been called 27 times by Walt Anderson's crew. The crews of Steratore, Torbert and Triplette have called it six times apiece.
  • Though pre-snap penalties might seem straightforward, there are sizable gaps among the crews. For instance, Steratore's crew has called delay of game twice. Carl Cheffers' crew, which leads the league in overall penalty calls, as can be seen in the bar graph above, has called it 12 times. Coleman's crew has called 39 false start penalties. Jeff Triplette's has called less than half of that total (18).
Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: San Francisco 49ers linebacker Nick Moody penalized for roughing the passer after hitting Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Referee: Ed Hochuli
Analysis: Moody blitzed Wilson and hit him an instant after release of the ball on a key third-down play in the red zone. Slow-motion replays show Moody's helmet and face mask made contact with Wilson's chest at the level of his No. 3.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Elaine Thompson/AP PhotoWeek 15 games had several questionable calls, including a roughing the passer penalty by the 49ers on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Standing in his position behind Wilson, Hochuli craned his neck to view contact he appeared to be blocked from seeing. In announcing the penalty, Hochuli said Moody put his "helmet on the chest of the quarterback." The call was counterintuitive to the general public assumption that the NFL wants defensive players to avoid hits to the head and neck, which Moody did. He lowered his 6-foot-1 frame enough to hit the 5-foot-10 Wilson well below that priority area.

Most of us know that the NFL prohibits a defender from lowering his head and hitting a quarterback with the crown of his helmet. Moody avoided that type of contact as well. So what, if anything, did he do wrong? In speaking to a pool reporter afterward, Hochuli referenced contact by the "hairline" of Moody's helmet.

That explanation seemed to reference a lesser-known part of the NFL's rules for roughing the passer. Here's what Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) provides as one cause for penalty:
"A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture -- for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or face mask, even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or face mask is lower than the passer's neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the passer's body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer."

If you freeze the replay at the point of contact, you basically see Moody's face in Wilson's chest. Was the head lowered? No. But did the hairline make forcible contact, as Hochuli implied?

That would be an exceptionally difficult argument to make, one that and not even vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was willing to make. Speaking Monday morning on the NFL Network, Blandino said: "Moody's head is up, he hits with more of the side and the face mask to the body of the quarterback, and in our review, with the ability to look at it in slow motion, it's not a foul."

Entering Week 15, Hochuli's crew was tied for the second-fewest roughing the passer calls in the NFL. So it's not as if he has been trigger-happy on such calls this season. Did he truly see hairline contact by Moody during live action? Based on his positioning to the play, that seems unlikely. Or did he see it postgame via replay, prior to speaking to the pool reporter? I'll let you ruminate on that one.

Play: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is ruled to have fumbled at the goal line.
Referee: Jeff Triplette
Analysis: Griffin attempted to run for a touchdown near the right pylon just before halftime against the New York Giants. Holding the ball with his right hand at the 3-yard line, Griffin started to extend toward the goal line. He brought his left hand up to secure the ball but ended up losing possession for a moment.

Although Griffin regained control as he went airborne into the end zone, the ball again squirted loose when he landed. By the time he grabbed it for the final time, both Griffin and the ball were out of bounds.

The play happened fast, and Triplette's crew originally ruled it a touchdown. A replay review, however, provided a clear view of what happened. Once again, we're left to explain the NFL's quirky "process" rule that applies to possession of a ball when going to the ground.

We discussed this last week relative to a loose ball involving Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. As a reminder, here is part of what Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Note 1 reads:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball [with or without contact by an opponent] must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession."

While Griffin did regain possession, his initial bobble made the play fundamentally different than a runner who crosses into the end zone without first fumbling. That instance is a touchdown, and anything that happens afterward is moot. Griffin, however, had the added requirement of maintaining possession through "the process of contacting the ground," and as counterintuitive as that might seem, he clearly did not hit that threshold. With a big assist from replay, Triplette landed on the right call according to the rulebook.

Play: The Buffalo Bills are awarded a safety late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Bills defensive end Mario Williams knocked the ball away from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the 3-yard line. The ball bounced back into the end zone, where Packers running back Eddie Lacy picked it up and tried to run with it.

It's not clear if Lacy got the ball out of the end zone before he was tackled, but it was a moot point. The play was the first after the two-minute warning, which triggered an exception to the rules for advancing a fumble.

Rule 8, Section 7, Article 6 states that the offensive team can only advance a fumble after the two-minute warning if it's by the player who fumbled. Otherwise, the ball is dead at either the spot of the fumble or at the spot of the recovery, whichever is further back.

So in this case, Rodgers was the only player who could have advanced the ball out of the end zone and avoided a safety. Leavy was correct to whistle the play dead as soon as Lacy touched it.

The origin of this seemingly random exception is the 1978 "Holy Roller" play, when two Oakland Raiders teammates batted the ball some 24 yards into the end zone after a Kenny Stabler fumble. Raiders tight end Dave Casper fell on it for a touchdown. There was some controversy about whether the Raiders intentionally pushed the ball toward the end zone, but the NFL amended its rules the following year to eliminate the incentive to do so in a potential game-winning situation.
For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

The Arizona Cardinals reached a dubious achievement Thursday night, at least in this era of NFL offense. Their 12-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams made them the first team this season to win a game without scoring a touchdown.

The reasons were not mysterious. Both teams started their backup quarterbacks against top-end defenses, and the Cardinals finished with third-stringer Ryan Lindley at the helm after Drew Stanton's knee injury. But the low score prompted an early-morning question: How could we get this type of game after yet another shift of officiating toward offense?

As you recall, the league's points of emphasis for officials this season included two penalties -- defensive holding and illegal contact -- that figured to further limit defenders from stopping the passing game. The theory didn't overtly hold Thursday night; the teams combined for 342 passing yards and neither penalty was among the 14 accepted by Walt Coleman's crew. (Of course, there is no way to measure whether defenders have backed off as a result of earlier penalty calls, as San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers suggested they might.)

Regardless, with three weeks remaining in the season, we can get pretty close to answering whether the officiating shift made an impact on the game, as initially feared.

The chart shows that officials have far surpassed the total number of defensive holding and illegal contact penalties they called for the entire 2013 season. The rest of the numbers provide an equal comparison to the first 14 weeks of 2013, excluding Thursday night's game, to ensure that each sample covers the same total of 416 games.

As you can see, offensive scoring has remained static while yardage totals have increased slightly.

The more notable impact has come in efficiency. Overall completion percentage is up 1.7 points, while the touchdown-interception ratio has gone from 1.7 to 1.88. Total quarterback rating, meanwhile, has taken a significant jump from 52.6 in 2013 to 57.3 through Week 14 of this season.

Have quarterbacks become more effective in 2014, or has it been easier for them to operate efficiently under the points of emphasis? There is a tendency to connect those trends at some level, but it's worth noting that even without the new approach, QBR rose from 49.8 after 14 weeks in 2010 to 55.4 through the same time period of 2012. At the very least, it didn't hurt.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at 19.4 penalties per game, with Brad Allen (13.7) and Clete Blakeman (13.4) continuing to hold up the other end of the bracket.
Another in an Inside Slant series on innovation in and around the NFL. For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.

Early in the fourth quarter Monday at Lambeau Field, Jordy Nelson sprinted from the Green Bay Packers' 40-yard line to the Atlanta Falcons' 37. The Packers' receiver cut toward the middle of the field on a post route, caught Aaron Rodgers' pass at the 12 and turned upfield again for a 60-yard touchdown.

In almost real time, ESPN's production truck had received multiple data points about the play, from Nelson's speed (in miles per hour), to the precise yardage he ran, to the distance between him and the defenders who were trying to cover him. During the ensuing replay, television viewers saw that Nelson actually ran 65.2 yards to complete the route and score.

[+] EnlargeN/A
Courtesy Zebra TechnologiesA beta version of sorts for the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" project began quietly this season, but could expand as early as 2015.
That information is a beta version of sorts for the NFL's "Next Gen Stats" project, one that began quietly this season but could expand as early as 2015. The ultimate goal is to provide not only broadcasters but also in-stadium fans with a new level of understanding about what's happening in front of them. Eventually, teams could have access to data that would help them monitor the health, workload and conditioning of players during games, a similar stream to what many already receive in practice.

"The key thing here is that sports is going to move in the same direction that many industries already have," said Jill Stelfox, vice president/general manager of Zebra Technologies, the NFL's partner in this project. "At some point, there is going to be a standard set of data that is collected and be available for people to use that will be the fundamental starting point of how you analyze your players and team."

The process relies on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Signals) technology, which the automotive industry uses to track efficiency on the assembly line. The NFL partnered with Zebra this summer to insert a pair of GPS-like chips into the shoulder pads of every player. This year, 17 stadiums are outfitted with 20 receivers that collect RFID signals from the chips. (Full list here.) Zebra then ships selected data from an in-stadium server to the game's broadcasting truck for possible use.

As early as next season, the information could be available to fans at the game via scoreboard replay or, eventually, a handheld/in-seat device. Meanwhile, the NFL's competition committee is sorting through logistics and best practices of providing the raw data to teams as well. (As we discussed this spring, many of the league's teams already have signed on with companies that provide data tracking during practice.)

At the moment, I'm not sure how much value there is for a fan in knowing that Jordy Nelson ran 65.2 yards to catch a 60-yard pass, or that the Falcons' Roddy White was running 20.06 mph to get open while the defensive back who was trying to cover him was topping out at 18.74 mph.

But as the program evolves, Stelfox said, more information will be available and in different ways. Customized settings on a handheld device could show fans which players are getting tired, based on slower speeds or velocity, or identify an offensive line that is getting stronger as the game continues. There are also fantasy implications; knowing the speed of receivers relative to defensive backs could help inform lineup decisions. And if enough data is available, the practice of drafting entire defenses and special teams could be discarded in favor of individual player selections.

Ultimately, though, I'm guessing the best value here will be for teams to capitalize on technology already in use by some 400 sports leagues around the world. In Australian rugby games, for example, coaches routinely consult a live data stream during games to help make substitution decisions. NFL coaches could receive raw yardage totals which, compared to a season average, could help determine more precisely who is tired and who is nearing a danger zone for injury.

"These are products that are available and have been available for a while," Stelfox said. "In sports, it's new, so you take it slowly."

As with anything, there are downsides and potential unintended consequences. I spoke recently with a prominent player who wondered if teams would make new and possibly negative evaluations of player performance based on information it never before had. If a player's average speed drops in Week 5 or during a random Thursday practice, will they have been judged to have dogged it? If a defender's force and velocity while tackling falls during a season, will the information be used in contract negotiations as a sign of diminished skills?

The NFL is a few years away from that point. Even then, smart teams will take advantage. Skepticism and tradition will hold others back, and we'll see just how much it matters.
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see's QBR page.)

Derek Carr
Oakland Raiders
WEEK 14 vs. SF: W, 24-13
NEXT: 12/14 at KC
CMP: 22
ATT: 28
YDS: 254
PCT: 78.6
TD: 3
INT: 0

Carr completed 5 of 6 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown against the 49ers' blitz, a notable accomplishment given pre-draft concerns about his poise under pressure. It was his highest completion percentage (83.3), yards per attempt (13.2) and QBR (93.0) against the blitz this season. He mixed his passes around the field, completing 7 of 9 that traveled more than 10 yards downfield while throwing three touchdown passes of 5 or fewer yards through the air. Carr completed 9 of 10 passes on third down, including six that converted a first down, and all three of the touchdowns came on third down. He completed 6 of 8 play-action passes and was 16-for-16 for 182 yards and two touchdowns on throws to running backs or tight ends. In doing so, Carr matched the most such attempts without an incompletion by any NFL quarterback in the past nine seasons.


This was by far the best game of Carr's rookie season. In addition to the blitz, he produced career highs in completion percentage on 10-plus-yard and 15-plus-yard passes, as well as play-action. The Raiders are in contention for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2015, but if Carr can finish the season strongly, they might have the luxury of looking beyond the quarterback position for upgrades.

Teddy Bridgewater
Minnesota Vikings
WEEK 14 vs. NYJ: W, 30-24
NEXT: 12/14 at DET
CMP: 19
ATT: 27
YDS: 309
PCT: 70.4
TD: 2
INT: 1

Bridgewater's 309-yard day included 169 yards after the catch, boosted by an 87-yard game-winning touchdown on a screen pass in overtime. But he also demonstrated a continued upswing in his downfield throws, completing 4 of 7 attempts that traveled at least 15 yards downfield for a season-high 122 yards. In his past four games, Bridgewater has completed 13 of 26 such passes for an average of 11.92 yards per attempt. Before that period, he was completing 42 percent of them for an average of 9.2 yards per attempt. Sunday, Bridgewater limited himself to three off-target passes, his second-lowest total of the season. (He had two against the Panthers in Week 13.) In that recent four-game surge, he has averaged four off-target throws compared to 6.3 before then. Another correlation during the past four games has been receiver Charles Johnson, who has caught 15 of 30 passes thrown his way for an average of 71 yards per game.


The hope in sticking through rough patches with any young quarterback is that he will demonstrate sustained improvement over time. Bridgewater has done just that, improving his accuracy and deep throws after a notable dip midway through his rookie season.

Andrew Luck
Indianapolis Colts
WEEK 14 vs. CLE: W, 25-24
NEXT: 12/14 vs. HOU
CMP: 24
ATT: 53
YDS: 294
PCT: 45.3
TD: 2
INT: 2

Luck's 45.3 completion percentage was his first game below 50 percent since Week 9 of 2013 and the third worst in a game for his career. Most of his issues can be traced to a 3-for-11 first quarter. In that period, Luck underthrew three passes, overthrew one and had two more dropped. (For the game, the Colts dropped six passes -- their most ever in a start by Luck and tied for the most by an NFL team this season.) Three of those drops were debited to Reggie Wayne, who caught only one of the eight passes Luck threw to him. Their 12.5 connection percentage was the worst of their careers together. The Browns' blitz was effective, limiting Luck to six completions on 15 attempts for a season-low 40 percent success rate. Although the Browns blitzed a modest 28.3 percent of the time, they managed to pressure Luck on a season-high 31.7 percent of his dropbacks. On those plays, Luck completed just two of 14 passes with two interceptions. (One of the two completions was a 42-yard touchdown to T.Y. Hilton.) Luck had a season-low completion percentage on third down (27.3) and was ineffective in play-action with a season-low one completion in five attempts.


Much of the blame for the Colts' offensive performance has gone to the offensive line, a conclusion supported by the Browns' high-pressure percentage. That Luck managed to pull off the ninth fourth-quarter comeback of his career is a testament to his competitiveness. But few, if any, quarterbacks can play an efficient game under such pressure.

Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers
WEEK 14 vs. NO: W, 41-10
NEXT: 12/14 vs. TB
CMP: 21
ATT: 33
YDS: 226
PCT: 63.6
TD: 3
INT: 0

Newton capitalized on the running lanes left by the Saints' defense. Of his 83 total rushing yards, 69 came before contact; his average of 5.75 yards per rush before contact was a season high. And of his 12 carries, 10 appeared to be designed rushes. Half of those were zone-read plays, during which he amassed 50 yards. Meanwhile, tailback Jonathan Stewart rushed 20 times for 155 yards. In turn, Newton's rushing success set up play-action passing. He completed 9 of 13 such passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns for a 95.5 QBR on those plays. The Saints did not sack him despite blitzing 47.1 percent of the time, the second-highest rate Newton has faced this season. The blitzes were ineffective overall; Newton was pressured on just 14.7 percent of his dropbacks and completed 3 of 4 passes for 32 yards in those situations. His one shortcoming? He was 0-for-6 on passes that traveled 20 yards or more downfield.


The Saints might have taken rumors and reports about Newton's alleged injuries too seriously. His before-contact rushing totals indicate the Saints weren't expecting him to take off, especially on designed runs, as often as he did. Whether it's good for his long-term health, Sunday's game showed us the most effective way to use Newton: Get him in the open field and then capitalize with play-action.

Drew Stanton
Arizona Cardinals
WEEK 14 vs. KC: W, 17-14
NEXT: 12/11 at STL
CMP: 15
ATT: 30
YDS: 239
PCT: 50.0
TD: 1
INT: 0

Stanton has nearly matched Carson Palmer's number of attempts this season (224 to 220), giving us a good opportunity to compare their performances. Stanton completed 50 percent of his passes against the Chiefs and is at 54.5 percent for the season, compared to Palmer's 62.9. Stanton's touchdown to interception ratio (1.4) is lower than Palmer's (3.7) and he has one of the NFL's worst third-down completion percentages (49.2). Palmer's was 65.3. In the Cardinals' downfield offense, Stanton has completed 40.6 percent of passes thrown at least 10 yards downfield. That ranks No. 32 in the NFL. Palmer was at 47.4 percent. Against the Chiefs, Stanton completed 5 of 16 such passes, but he did connect on 7 of 10 third-down throws.


It's not surprising that a backup would be less productive and efficient than the starter. One way or the other, the Cardinals are 4-3 in Stanton's starts. It's worth noting, as first pointed out by ESPN Insider columnist Mike Sando, that Stanton has played substantial portions of the season without receiver Larry Fitzgerald. When he is on the field with Fitzgerald, Stanton has a 72.9 QBR. It's 22.5 when Fitzgerald is out. It's also worth noting Stanton is 3-0 with a 80.7 QBR at home and 1-3 with a 34.2 QBR on the road.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: Unnecessary roughness penalty on New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner wipes out an interception return for a touchdown
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Midway through the third quarter Sunday night, Browner hit San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green as Green bobbled a pass near midfield. The ball popped in the air, was intercepted by Patriots safety Devin McCourty and returned 56 yards for a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Browner
AP Photo/Denis PoroyBrandon Browner was flagged for unnecessary roughness following this hit on Ladarius Green.
Leavy, however, announced a penalty on Browner: personal foul for what he announced was a "helmet-to-helmet" hit. In live action, the call seemed appropriate, given the violent snap of Green's head. But a closer, slow-motion review revealed contact we unfortunately have seen penalized so often in recent years. The scenario begs for the NFL to add it to the list of reviewable infractions.

Let's unpack the play. At the top, we should note that Green qualified for defenseless player protection under NFL rules because he was "a receiver attempting to catch a pass." (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7a-2).

With the aid of slow motion, you see Browner slide his head to the left, lead with his right shoulder and initiate contact to Green's right shoulder and chest area. Browner's shoulder glanced off Green's face mask, but there was minimal helmet-to-helmet contact. It's true that defenders can be penalized even if there is no hit to the head -- Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7b prohibits them from "forcibly" hitting a defenseless player's "head or neck area" with their "helmet, face mask, forearm or shoulder" -- but it's debatable whether Browner's contact met that standard.

Regardless, it was nearly impossible for an official to decipher and break down the contact accurately in real time. So here's the guidance provided by the NFL rule book for all unnecessary roughness penalties: "When in question about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness." In other words, err on the side of a penalty.

What could Browner have done differently? Theoretically, he could have gotten lower and contacted Green's torso rather than his shoulder -- a difficult task considering Browner's unusual 6-foot-4 frame. It also can't be overlooked that Browner entered the game tied for the third-most penalties among NFL players (10), despite playing in only six games. (He reached 12 by the end of Sunday night's game.)

Browner said via Twitter:

In this case and many others, the NFL's understandable desire to limit head collisions puts officials at a disadvantage. They're doing what they've been told -- calling an illegal hit even if they have any doubt -- and it's difficult to expect them to do anything other than use those cues. Replay reviews might be the only long-term answer.

Play: Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce fumbles at the end of a reception
Referee: Craig Wrolstad
Analysis: In the fourth quarter Sunday, Kelce caught a 19-yard pass and was tackled by Arizona Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon. The ball bounced away and was recovered immediately by the Cardinals' Justin Bethel. Wrolstad's crew, however, ruled Kelce had been down by contact before the ball squirted away.

The Cardinals challenged and replays showed Kelce losing control before his knees hit the ground. What made the play unique was that Kelce regained control upon landing on his back. Only then, as he and Bucannon rolled over, did the ball come loose again.

Intuition suggests the play should be dead the moment Kelce's knee hit the ground with the ball in his possession. But that's not how the NFL sees it. Here is part of what Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Note 1 reads:

"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession."

Based on this wording, Wrolstad made the correct -- if counterintuitive -- decision to reverse the call. Kelce did not maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground; it came loose as he rolled over.

Two former officials who are now TV analysts, Mike Perreira and Mike Carey, ultimately agreed with the reversal. And as we discussed last week, the NFL has been exceptionally cautious about reversing calls this season, requiring the highest standard of evidence. It might not make intuitive sense based on what we all saw, but the ruling reflects the rule book's standards.

Play: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is ruled to have thrown an incomplete pass
Referee: John Parry
Analysis: In the fourth quarter Sunday, Flacco was attempting to throw against a heavy pass rush from Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake and safety Louis Delmas. Wake grabbed Flacco's right arm, redirecting the ball about 2 yards in front of him. Dolphins defensive tackle Earl Mitchell fell on it, and Parry ruled the play a fumble.

Reviewed in slow motion, however, it became clear that Flacco began the throwing motion prior to contact from Wake. Even if the "Tuck Rule" still existed, allowing a quarterback to maintain possession if he tried to pull the ball back and lost it, it wouldn't have applied here because Flacco never attempted to pull back the throw.

The ball left his hand sideways, and traveled only 2 yards, because Wake's contact prevented Flacco from following through. But his arm was going forward when the ball left.

Replay official Bob McGrath initiated a review that recognized the mistake and Parry reversed the call. This was a case where replay demonstrated definitively an action that we could only guess about when watching live.
For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

Twitter chaos, a common affliction, broke out Thursday night during the third quarter of the Dallas Cowboys' 41-28 victory over the Chicago Bears. Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley had been credited with a 24-yard touchdown reception despite replays that suggested he was down before the ball crossed the plane of the end zone.

The NFL Network broadcast, however, did not have the definitive goal-line view that could overturn referee Ed Hochuli's call via booth review. As a result, the touchdown stood -- underlying a clear trend that has developed in NFL replay this season.

As the chart shows, the success rate in overturning calls is down sharply for coaches' challenges and noticeably for those initiated by the replay official as well. The league has without question elevated its interpretation of the "indisputable visual evidence" standard, possibly as a result of several questionable overturns in 2013, and only the most obvious mistakes this season have been fixed.

Here's how the league's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, described the shift in a recent video produced for media and broadcasters:

"The call on the field is correct unless we have indisputable visual evidence to the contrary, and then we can overturn it, and we are really trying to stick to that standard. You will see that reversals are down this year because we are not going to try to reofficiate the play in the booth. We have a ruling on the field. If it's not clear and obvious that that ruling on the field is incorrect, the call will not be overturned, and that's the standard that we're trying to stick to."

Blandino has been in a prime position to impose this standard in 2014, the first year of a new program that incorporates league executives into the replay process. He was among those in the NFL's New York command center Thursday when Beasley's touchdown came up for review, advising Hochuli on what the replay did and didn't reveal.

There was no question that Beasley's knee was down before the ball touched the pylon, which is considered part of the plane. But because there was no goal-line angle -- an issue for another day -- Hochuli and Blandino couldn't be positive that it hadn't crossed the plane before hitting the pylon.

Is that likely? No. Is it 100 percent indisputable that it didn't happen? No, and that hint of doubt is as good of an encapsulation as we've seen to describe the standard Blandino and crew are applying.

I've had plenty of fans ask why the NFL uses replay at all if not to overturn what seem to be clear mistakes, and to me the answer -- right or wrong -- is clear. The league wants replay to reverse only the most obvious, clear and inarguable gaffes its officials make. If there is a shred of judgment to be made, or any extrapolation necessary, the call is going to stand.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at 19.7 penalties per game, with Brad Allen (13.4) and Clete Blakeman (13.2) continuing to hold up the other end of the bracket.
Another in an Inside Slant series on innovation in and around the NFL. For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.

Like players and coaches, technology must earn its spot in the world of football. The gauntlet is rigorous and resistance is substantial, but every now and then, an idea sneaks through and achieves a long-due evolution.

This season -- lo and behold -- the NFL upgraded its procedures for viewing photographs of formations and alignments on its game-day sidelines. In what was heralded as a major breakthrough, each team has access to 13 Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablets on the sideline and another 12 in the coaches' box.

As recently as 2013, team video directors were printing black-and-white photos, arranging them in three-ring binders and delivering them by hand to waiting coaches. Now, they upload color photos to the tablets via a hidden Wi-Fi system, allowing coaches and players to scroll, pinch and zoom in near real-time.

The country's tech media has had some fun with announcers and players referring to the devices as iPads, an early hurdle for Microsoft marketing. For the most part, however, this simple advancement -- nearly five years after tablets become commercially available -- is now part of the game's stodgy fabric.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/AJ Mast, FileThe old-school NFL is finally embracing tablet technology. Even Bill Belichick.
(The best endorsement? New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, 62 and a 39-year veteran of NFL coaching, claimed he was "overwhelmed" by the tablets when first introduced but has since been caught pinching and zooming himself.)

I don't know of anyone who believes the new system has revolutionized in game adjustments. Its primary function has been to provide a cleaner, greener and more convenient way to view the same information teams have always used during games.

The story here isn't a sudden flow of new data or some other kind of 180-degree turn. No, no, no no. It's that a new technology managed to infiltrate and gain general acceptance in the NFL's risk-averse and change-averse environment. It took, of course, more than a year of development, a compliance with a long list of custom demands and -- a bit cynically -- a $400 million sponsorship deal with Microsoft -- before the NFL was willing to try a relatively simple innovation.

I was struck this summer after encountering the smart and tech-savvy backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck at Indianapolis Colts training camp. More than anything, Hasselbeck seemed amused at the perceived heights the NFL was reaching by using a tablet on the sideline.

The Colts were also in their first year using GPS chips to help measure player exertion, a technology we discussed in this Hot Read story, and Hasselbeck said: "For both of those things, I think the feeling is, 'Wow, we're on the cutting edge.' But that stuff has been around forever.

"We're doing it, but we're not on the cutting edge of one thing technology-wise in football," he added. "I can't think of one thing, technology wise, that we're the leader in. All we're looking at on the Microsoft Surface is a still-shot picture. We're just replacing the black and white pictures we used to look at. The Microsoft Surface has been out forever."

According to James Bernstrom, Microsoft's director of product marketing, the development process for the NFL system began in earnest before the 2013 season. Working with the NFL's competition committee, Microsoft developed a custom device that is Windows-based but runs only one app -- the photo viewer. The exterior is waterproof and is modified for use in temperatures between minus-10 and 120 degrees. If gloves inhibit touch use, a stylus-like instrument can be used.

"We think this is allowing players and coaches to be more productive than ever on the sideline," Bernstrom said.

It's all relative, of course. Hasselbeck, in his 16th NFL season, has witnessed several tech-based "innovations" that came years after they were common in other industries. Teams have slowly been converting their playbooks to iPads, and despite the availability of Surface Pros, some teams are still printing out game-day photos for coaches who prefer it.

"It wasn't too long ago that I was getting plays taught to me on an overhead projector on transparencies," Hasselbeck said. "We made a huge deal when we went to Power Point. And then a couple years later, we got the color Power Point. And now we have iPads [for playbooks].

"My daughter, who was in sixth grade last year, used an iPad for everything. You have your iPad for football and then your personal iPad. You can't put your Instagram account on your team iPad. It's like, 'Wow, that's too crazy.' But I get the trust factor. You've got to build it. But mostly, it's because this is football, where we do things like they've always been done."

Except every now and then, when a long overdue transition occurs. What's next? How about true wireless communication on the sideline, so coaches aren't tripping over cords as the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy did earlier this season. Oh, you're right. Let's not get crazy.
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see's QBR page.)

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers
WEEK 13 vs. NE: W, 26-21
NEXT: 12/8 vs. ATL
CMP: 24
ATT: 38
YDS: 368
PCT: 63.2
TD: 2
INT: 0

Rodgers focused his efforts downfield during the first half of Sunday's matchup before pulling back after halftime. His average throw distance in the first half was 12.2 yards past the line of scrimmage. He threw nine passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, completing five for 171 yards and a touchdown. Downfield passes are lower-percentage throws, of course, and Rodgers overthrew four of his first eight attempts based on ESPN video analysis. In the second half, Rodgers didn't throw a single pass that traveled more than 10 yards downfield and his average throw traveled 5.3 yards. Not surprisingly, he was off target -- based on ESPN video analysis -- on only two of his final 30 throws. The Packers' pass protection also was exceptional, as Rodgers was pressured (sacked or put under duress) on only six of his 43 dropbacks (14 percent). For the season, Rodgers' pressure rate is 23 percent. (On those six pressured dropbacks, Rodgers was sacked three times and threw three incompletions.) The pass protection allowed Rodgers to set season highs in the average time he spent in the pocket (2.82 seconds) and time spent before throwing (3.11 seconds). His season averages had been 2.34 seconds and 2.57 seconds, respectively.


Considered through this lens, Rodgers aggressively helped the Packers build their lead in the first half and then protected it with higher-percentage throws in the second. The Patriots' decision to sit back in coverage -- they blitzed just 14 percent of the time -- helps explain the time he spent in the pocket and the strategy of throwing short. In the end, it gave the Packers a victory over one of the NFL's hottest teams.

Drew Brees
New Orleans Saints
WEEK 13 vs. PIT: W, 35-32
NEXT: 12/7 vs. CAR
CMP: 19
ATT: 27
YDS: 257
PCT: 70.4
TD: 5
INT: 0

Brees started slowly against the Steelers, throwing three of his first seven attempts off target based on ESPN video analysis. For the final 43 minutes of the game, however, Brees did not throw an off-target pass. He completed 16 of 20 attempts, and of the four incompletions, two were thrown away, one was dropped and one was batted away. The Steelers blitzed Brees on 50 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate he has seen this season, and he responded by completing 10 of 14 passes against it for 130 yards and three touchdowns. When the Steelers sent a defensive back as a blitzer, Brees completed all six attempts for 56 yards and a touchdown. The blitz allowed Brees to get downfield, and his average throw distance for the game was 8.85 yards per attempt, his second highest in a game this season. Brees targeted receiver Kenny Stills six times, including five on passes of at least 15 yards downfield. They connected five times overall for 162 yards.


Brees' 15 touchdown passes against the blitz leads the NFL. Generally speaking, it's not the way to approach a quarterback of his experience, whether he's on the road or at home. For the most part, Brees calmly took what the Steelers gave him. His discipline surfaced most noticeably in tight end Jimmy Graham's first game without a target since Week 7 of 2012.

Ryan Fitzpatrick
Houston Texans
WEEK 13 vs. TEN: W, 45-21
NEXT: 12/7 at JAC
CMP: 24
ATT: 33
YDS: 358
PCT: 72.7
TD: 6
INT: 0

Fitzpatrick built his 358-yard, six-touchdown afternoon primarily around receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The pair connected on all nine passes Fitzpatrick targeted him on for 238 yards and two touchdowns. That included five connections of at least 11 yards downfield and two touchdowns that traveled 30-plus yards. Fitzpatrick missed on 7 of 8 targets on that distance to other receivers. In regaining the starting job, Fitzpatrick improved noticeably against the blitz, completing 10 of 13 passes against it for 113 yards and three touchdowns for a QBR of 99.96. Entering the game, his QBR against the blitz was 34.9. On third down, Fitzpatrick accumulated a 99.97 QBR by completing 10 of 11 passes, including nine to convert a first down. His third-down QBR entering the game had been 32.9. Finally, the Texans protected Fitzpatrick well. He was pressured on just 14.7 percent of his dropbacks, his lowest rate in a game this season and far less than the 33.4 he had been averaging in his earlier starts.


The Titans' pass defense has allowed opponents a 67.1 QBR this season, sixth worst in the NFL. So Fitzpatrick returned in a favorable environment. But there is no denying that for one afternoon, at least, he moved to a different level in downfield accuracy and clutch throwing.

Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens
WEEK 13 vs. SD: L, 34-33
NEXT: 12/7 at MIA
CMP: 19
ATT: 31
YDS: 225
PCT: 61.3
TD: 2
INT: 0

Flacco posted the second-highest QBR (93.6) by a starter in a loss this season, largely on the strength of a first-possession drive that included four completions that resulted in first downs. After that point, Flacco didn't commit a turnover, fumble the ball or take a sack. He targeted receiver Torrey Smith on a season-high eight targets, completing six, and averaged 8.1 yards per attempt on those throws. Most of Flacco's production came against the Chargers' standard pass rush, against which he completed 15 of 21 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and for the most part he had plenty of time to throw. Flacco spent an average of 2.61 seconds in the pocket and 3.03 seconds before passing. Both were the second-longest durations for him this season. Entering the game, his averages were 2.30 seconds and 2.48 seconds, respectively. After throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass to Smith, Flacco missed on four of his next five passes of at least 15 yards downfield.


It's odd to see a losing quarterback with such a high QBR, but in the end the Ravens lost a 67-point shootout by one point. Flacco staked his team to an early lead and played efficiently, but not explosively, the rest of the way.

Peyton Manning
Denver Broncos
WEEK 13 vs. KC: W, 29-16
NEXT: 12/7 vs. BUF
CMP: 17
ATT: 34
YDS: 179
PCT: 50.0
TD: 2
INT: 0

The Broncos' 214 rushing yards did not impact Manning in the way you might think. He completed only 50 percent of his play-action passes (3-of-6), his lowest on such throws in a game this season. The three completions produced a total of 2 yards, 42 yards fewer than his previous low this season. ESPN began tracking play-action throws in 2006, and since that span, Manning had never had fewer than 15 yards on such passes. Against the Chiefs, Manning also struggled on downfield passes, completing just 4 of 13 throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. That 30.8 completion percentage was a season low. Manning completed just 1 of 6 throws that traveled 20 yards downfield and produced his lowest completion percentage (52.4) on passes against the Chiefs' standard pass rush since he joined the Broncos in 2012. Finally, Manning completed just 4 of 11 passes for 19 yards in the red zone. His QBR on such passes was 8.7; he entered the game with the NFL's highest red zone QBR (97.0).


The Chiefs were determined not to let Manning beat them, preferring to take their chances with the run, and the Broncos demonstrated a new level of offensive balance in the process. But given Manning's nearly unbreakable run the past two years, it was noticeable to see him taken so far off his game.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis throws an illegal challenge flag
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: With 26 seconds remaining in a one-point game, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed a 21-yard pass play to put themselves in position for a game-winning field goal. The Bucs had no timeouts remaining, so they hurried to the line to stop the clock. At the 19-second mark, Lewis dropped his red flag on the field after realizing the Bucs had 12 men on the field for the play.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsMarvin Lewis' challenge in the final minute Sunday against Tampa Bay put on display the possibility that a coach without timeouts might use an illegal challenge to his advantage.
NFL rules mandate that only the press box replay official can initiate a challenge with less than two minutes remaining in either half. Two years ago, the penalty associated with a similar mistake by Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz had eliminated the possibility of a replay review on a play that would have been reversed. The league modified the wording before the 2013 season and now, an illegal challenge results only in the loss of a timeout. (If the team is out of timeouts, a 15-yard penalty ensues.)

Many coaches dispose their red flag at the two-minute mark to prevent the possibility of an inadvertent challenge. But Lewis' action introduced the strategy of taking a mild penalty to ensure that the replay official has ample time to recognize an abnormality and initiate a review himself.

Lewis undoubtedly challenged before there was any sign of a booth review. About seven seconds passed between the time he dropped the flag and when whistles from Leavy's crew stopped the clock. The question is whether the Bucs would have gotten off their next play, and thus eliminated the possibility of an official review, if Lewis hadn't committed an illegal act. Did a penalty actually work in favor of the team it was charged to?

That's not the type of rule manipulation the NFL nor any other league would endorse, and vice president of officiating Dean Blandino moved quickly to dispel it. Via Twitter, Blandino said that replay official Larry Nemmers "was stopping the game for review when Lewis threw the flag" and asserted: "It would have been looked at regardless." Addressing the gap in time between Lewis throwing the flag and the first indication of a review, Blandino tweeted that the replay official "has to wait to see if the offense can get lined up legally before stopping the game."

That might be the case, and Lewis could have simply called a timeout in this situation and gotten the same result. But this episode put on display the possibility that a coach without timeouts might still use an illegal challenge to his advantage. A 15-yard penalty in exchange for ensuring the reversal of, say, a 40-yard play would make perfect sense.

Play: Replay official rules Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel threw incomplete, and didn't fumble, on a fourth-quarter play
Referee: Jerome Boger
Analysis: Manziel was attempting to throw on a broken play when he collided with Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Kyle Williams. The ball hit Williams' right shoulder and bounced into the end zone, where Bills cornerback Nickell Robey recovered for what Boger's crew ruled a touchdown.

Replay official Carl Madsen initiated a review to confirm whether Manziel fumbled and if Robey made a full recovery. The former was nebulous enough that two ex-officials, now television analysts, disagreed on the interpretation. Mike Carey said on the CBS broadcast that Manziel fumbled, suggesting the touchdown should be upheld, while Mike Pereira tweeted that it was an incomplete pass and should be reversed.

The first point to remember is that in 2013, the NFL eliminated the "Tuck Rule," which essentially held that a quarterback's throwing motion was irreversible. Even if he stopped, tried to "tuck" the ball and then lost it, the call under the old rule was an incomplete pass. In 2014, however, a quarterback who drops the ball after attempting to tuck it could be ruled to have fumbled.

Rule 3, Section 22, Article 4, Item 2 reads: "If the player loses possession of the ball during an attempt to bring it back toward his body, or if the player loses possession after he has tucked the ball into his body, it is a fumble."

Was Manziel attempting to tuck the ball? Or did contact with Williams change his arm action and make it look that way? Watching the replay in slow motion suggests Manziel thought better of a throw as Williams approached. But before he could start bringing the ball back toward his body, it hit Williams' shoulder.

In this case, we can interpret Manziel's intent while noting that his action didn't meet the threshold for a tuck. Williams didn't give him the chance. Even though Manziel likely was trying to tuck the ball, he didn't officially start that process. His arm was still going forward at the moment it was dislodged. It made sense to reverse the call and rule the play an incomplete pass.

Play: Time runs out on the Baltimore Ravens as receiver Kamar Aiken glides out of bounds.
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: Aiken made a diving 24-yard reception and slid onto the sideline with about four seconds remaining against the San Diego Chargers, putting his team in position for a potential game-winning field goal. But line judge Byron Boston signaled for the clock to continue running, essentially ending the game because the Ravens were out of timeouts.

Similar plays often cause confusion among those watching at full speed, but the NFL rulebook is pretty simple here. Among 10 reasons it gives to stop the game clock is: "When the ball is out of bounds."

As best as we can tell from the available replay in this case, the ball was still in bounds when both of Aiken's knees touched the ground. Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers fell on Aiken's back as he dove, which means Aiken was down by contact the moment his knees touched.

To have stopped the clock in this instance, Aiken would have needed to extend the ball over the sideline before his knees or elbows touched the ground.
It seems months ago when we were stressing over the impact of the NFL's 2014 points of emphasis for officiating after an eye-opening preseason. (Ah, yes. It was months ago. Time flies.)

We're a bit more than 70 percent into the season, and with the playoff chase intensifying, I thought it would be worth updating the results and inspecting which officiating crews have reacted most dramatically to the new mandates. The results are in the chart embedded below this post, which includes the first two games of Week 13 (but not Thursday evening's game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers).

The first point to note is that NFL officials have called more than twice as many illegal contact penalties at this point (111) than they did in all 17 weeks of the 2013 season (54). Recently, they surpassed the 2013 total of defensive holding calls (231); that figure currently stands at 243. (Remember, these numbers from ESPN Stats & Information include accepted, declined and offsetting penalty calls.)

Second, as often is the case, a relatively wide discrepancy exists in how frequently these calls have been made by some crews. The chart shows how many flags each crew has thrown, and I also added a column for defensive pass interference to provide a more complete glimpse into how the crews officiate pass defense overall.

As you can see, John Parry's crew leads the league in defensive holding and illegal contact calls. It's one shy of the lead for defensive pass interference penalties. Its total of 46 "pass defense' calls is more than three times the crew with the lowest frequency of such flags (Walt Coleman). If you have a physical defensive secondary, you're going to much prefer Coleman or Brad Allen (19 total calls) to Parry or Jerome Boger.

Allen's crew, meanwhile, has called the fewest two points of emphasis penalties (seven). It's worth noting this is Allen's first season in the NFL; he was hired from the ACC last offseason.

It's always worth pointing out that some of these trends within crews are impacted by the matchups they are assigned to. But as the season progresses, and crews make their way through the league, you would assume the discrepancies caused by a team's scheme or personnel would normalize.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active at 19.7, with Ed Hochuli's crew ranking second at 18. Per NFL Nation writer Mike Reiss, Hochuli has been assigned the feature matchup of the weekend: the New England Patriots' game at the Green Bay Packers.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 12 QB Report

November, 25, 2014
Nov 25
Let's take our weekly deep dive into the Sunday performance of five NFL quarterbacks, using data supplied by analyst Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information. After all, the numbers don't always speak for themselves. (For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly QB Report, follow this link. For a full statistical breakdown of all NFL quarterbacks, see's QBR page.)

Matthew Stafford
Detroit Lions
WEEK 12 vs. NE: L, 34-9
NEXT: 11/27 vs. CHI
CMP: 18
ATT: 46
YDS: 264
PCT: 39.1
TD: 0
INT: 1

Stafford completed just 18 of his 46 passes, giving him the lowest single-game completion percentage (39.1) in his career. How much of it was his fault? And how much of the blame falls on his receivers or pass protection? Here's what we found out: Of the 28 incompletions, 10 were judged to be over- or under-thrown in ESPN video review, tied for Stafford's second most in a game this season. Four of the incompletions were judged to be dropped and nine more were defended -- broken up, batted or intercepted -- by the Patriots. Both of those last two figures were season highs for Stafford. Seven of those defended passes were intended for receiver Calvin Johnson or Golden Tate. (Stafford targeted each of them with 10 passes and completed four apiece.) That provides a reliable explanation for most of the misses. Meanwhile, Stafford found himself under duress or hit on 10 of his dropbacks, third most for a quarterback in a game during Week 12.


When you throw 46 passes and complete only 18, there is plenty of blame to go around. Stafford's inconsistent accuracy was the biggest culprit, but the Patriots also played excellent defense. The drops, on the other hand, are best seen in context. Their total of 18 for the season is the sixth most in the NFL, but part of that is the result of 417 overall attempts, which ranks eighth in the NFL. The drop percentage, a more reliable measure, is 4.3 -- slightly higher than the NFL average of 4.0. Receiver drops shouldn't be disproportionately blamed.

Tom Brady
New England Patriots
WEEK 12 vs. DET: W, 34-9
NEXT: 11/30 at GB
CMP: 38
ATT: 53
YDS: 349
PCT: 71.7
TD: 2
INT: 1

The Patriots used a pass-first approach against the Lions, but see if you can pick up on its true intent. Brady threw 11 screen passes and completed all of them, his highest total of both completions and attempts in at least five seasons. Of his 53 attempts, 29 traveled 5 yards or fewer past the line of scrimmage. Brady completed 25 of them, including 12 that were caught at or behind the line. Brady threw 21 passes on first down, tied for his most in a game this season, and converted eight first downs on those throws. He also completed 5 of 6 play-action throws on first down and 8 of 9 overall. The Lions backed off their blitz against him, sending an extra rusher on 15 percent of his dropbacks, and overall they pressured him on only 9.4 percent of his dropbacks, a season low for the Lions and for Brady. He was put under duress on five attempts, completing all five.


A week earlier, the Patriots defeated the Colts behind 201 rushing yards from power back Jonas Gray. They pivoted noticeably against the top rushing defense in the NFL, but they used their passing game often to simulate the run. The end result: The Patriots lit up the Lions for 34 points, more than twice their defensive scoring average entering the game.

Jay Cutler
Chicago Bears
WEEK 12 vs. TB: W, 21-13
NEXT: 11/27 at DET
CMP: 17
ATT: 27
YDS: 130
PCT: 63.0
TD: 1
INT: 0

Cutler posted season lows in dropbacks, attempts, completions and passing yards for a game -- and it appeared by design. Playing against a defense that discourages downfield throws, Cutler attempted only three passes that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. His longest pass traveled 17 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage. The three attempts were Cutler's fewest in a game that he has finished since joining the Bears in 2009. His average air yards per throw was 3.85, by far his shortest this season and his second shortest in his Bears career. He attempted only five outside passes (passes thrown beyond the numbers). Entering the game, he had completed at least seven of those passes each week this season. He threw five play-action passes and three screens, completing all eight such throws. In eight red zone plays, the Bears threw only once -- the second time in as many weeks when they have run more often than passed in the red zone. The reverse had been the case the previous 10 weeks.


For at least one week, the Bears dialed it way back for a quarterback who entered the game with 17 turnovers. In the past two weeks, tailback Matt Forte has carried or caught a pass 60 times for a total of 287 yards. That makes sense, given Cutler's struggles and the arrival of December weather.

Brian Hoyer
Cleveland Browns
WEEK 12 vs. ATL: W, 26-24
NEXT: 11/30 at BUF
CMP: 23
ATT: 40
YDS: 322
PCT: 57.5
TD: 0
INT: 3

Hoyer's worst game of the season coincided with the return of downfield threat Josh Gordon from suspension. Hoyer targeted Gordon 17 times against the Falcons, completing eight but also throwing two of his interceptions on those throws. He threw downfield to Gordon -- at least 15 air yards -- eight times and completed two of them. Those 17 targets were tied for the most passes thrown to one player in an NFL game this season. Eight of his 17 incompletions were judged to be overthrows by ESPN video analysis, including two of his interceptions. In the red zone, Hoyer missed all six of his attempts, including one interception. His 0.0007 QBR in the red zone was the worst of his career. All three of his interceptions came against the Falcons' standard pressure, the same as his previous five this season. Hoyer had not previously thrown an interception against the blitz in 2014.


Did the Browns' eagerness to unleash Gordon knock Hoyer off his previously efficient game? It's difficult to dismiss that possibility as at least a partial explanation for his performance. Hoyer regained his composure to lead another game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, his fifth in 10 victories as a starter during his career, giving him a successful outcome with which to evaluate his approach.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks
WEEK 12 vs. ARI: W, 19-3
NEXT: 11/27 at SF
CMP: 17
ATT: 22
YDS: 211
PCT: 77.3
TD: 1
INT: 0

Wilson took seven sacks, tying his career high, and they came in a variety of ways. He spent an average of 2.56 seconds in the pocket per throw, his longest in a game this season, but three of the seven sacks came outside the pocket. The Cardinals blitzed him on 50 percent of his dropbacks, a season high for Wilson. They sacked him on three of those plays, but he also completed 11 of the 13 passes he got off against the blitz for 153 yards. When under duress, Wilson completed 5 of 6 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Wilson kept most of his passes short, attempting only three that traveled at least 15 yards downfield. Of his 211 passing yards, 138 came after the catch. He attempted a season-low seven passes to receivers and kept the ball on five of the Seahawks' 14 zone-read plays, accounting for 46 yards.


It's probably best to view the seven sacks as a byproduct of Wilson's ability to make plays against the blitz. When an opponent blitzes on half of your passing plays, you find any way you can to make it work. The Seahawks are more than happy to take the end result.

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: A five-minute delay to spot the ball after offsetting penalties against the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers
Referee: Carl Cheffers
Analysis: Cheffers' crew entered the weekend with an NFL-leading average of 19.6 penalty calls per game, including declined and offsetting. Its total was 21 on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium, including two during a controversial sequence in which Rams coach Jeff Fisher vigorously argued for Cheffers to correct his original spot.

[+] EnlargeCarl Cheffers
AP Photo/Denis PoroyReferee Carl Cheffers explains a call to Chargers coach Mike McCoy during the second half of San Diego's 27-24 win against the Rams.
Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin's 73-yard punt return was marred by penalties committed by both teams; the Rams' Marshall McFadden was called for holding and Chargers punter Mike Scifres was penalized for a low block. In his original announcement, Cheffers said that by rule, the offsetting penalties meant the ball would be spotted at the Rams' 22-yard line, where Austin fielded the ball.

Cheffers, however, provided an incorrect citation and explanation. A full breakdown can be found deep in a section of the NFL rule book entitled "Double Fouls With a Change of Possession." (Light reading!) From Rule 14, Section 5, Article 2, Exception (c): "If both teams foul after the last change of possession (Double Foul After Change of Possession), the team last in possession shall retain the ball at the spot of its foul or the dead-ball spot, whichever is less beneficial for it."

In this case, McFadden's hold apparently occurred near the Chargers' 40-yard line. (There was not much contact on the hold, but the end zone replay suggested that McFadden used his right arm to grab the outside left shoulder of the Chargers' Andrew Gachkar.) That spot was less beneficial to the Rams than the "dead-ball spot," where Austin finally was downed at the 5-yard line, so the 40 was where the ball was supposed to be.

Still, the change in spot means a difference of 38 yards to the Rams. Cheffers corrected the call after more than five minutes of discussion. All's well that ends well.

Play: New York Giants running back Andre Williams ruled down by contact
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Analysis: In the second quarter Sunday night, Williams was gang-tackled by three Dallas Cowboys defenders. During the process, Cowboys safety Barry Church pulled the ball loose. Before the whistles blew, Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens gained possession.

Vinovich immediately ruled that Williams had been down by contact before the ball was loose, meaning the Giants would retain possession. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett challenged the play.

The number of bodies surrounding Williams blocked any opportunity for a clear view of what happened. That said, a slow version of the replay strongly indicates that Church dislodged the ball while Williams was falling into linebacker Kyle Wilber. Neither knee touched the ground, and though Williams' elbows weren't totally visible, it's unlikely they made contact either -- considering Williams' upper body was higher than his legs as supported by Wilber.

Still, the available views did not meet the technical and official standard for reversing a decision. As many know, Rule 15, Section 2, Article 3 reads in part: "A decision will be reversed only when the Referee has indisputable visual evidence available to him that warrants the change." (Emphasis not mine.)

Assumptions can't be made in these cases, no matter how likely or obvious they might be. We have all seen a stretch or two over the years, but that doesn't make this instance any different. Physics tells us there is little chance Williams was down before he fumbled, but unless Vinovich could confirm every possibility that he wasn't, the play couldn't be overturned. (The Giants scored a touchdown on the next play.)

Play: Houston Texans linebacker/defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is far into the neutral zone
Referee: Terry McAulay
Analysis: Midway through the third quarter, Clowney was lined up at right end in a four-point stance. By this angle, it appeared Clowney was more than a yard offsides and should have been penalized. Called correctly, the penalty would have negated the ensuing interception returned for a touchdown by Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph.

The neutral zone is defined as the space between the back and forward ends of the football. Rule 7, Section 4, Article 5 defines offsides as a moment when any part of a player's body "is in or beyond the neutral zone" when the ball is put in play.

Clowney's hands appeared to be at the 49-yard line, which was also the line of scrimmage. McAulay's crew missed the call.

(Note: An earlier version of this post suggested that McAulay did not initiate a 10-second runoff after a false start in the final minute of the first half. The clock did not immediately reflect the change, but eventually McAulay made an announcement to ensure that the runoff took place.)

For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

How many times have you seen it? A punter gets the ball away just before the approaching rush arrives. The punter falls to the ground. Was there contact? Did the punter flop? Should it be a 5-yard penalty? Oh wait, that doesn't exist anymore. Was it bad enough to be a 15-yarder?

This conversation plays out weekly, even among the most knowledgeable NFL observers, confused by years of rule changes and tweaks and aggravated by the potential swing of returning possession to a punting team. We saw a confluence of these factors Thursday night in Oakland, making this a good time to dig deeper into the penalties for roughing or running into a kicker.

The portion of the NFL rulebook devoted to those two penalties is excerpted in the chart (right). Contrary to popular belief, there is still a 5-yard penalty for running into the kicker. It does not carry an automatic first down. Roughing the kicker, a 15-yard penalty, does bring an automatic first down, if for some reason there were more than 15 yards left to gain.

These rules are complicated and, as you'll notice, there are more exceptions to the rules listed than actual instances. Generally speaking, it's roughing if the punter's plant leg is contacted or if he collides with a rusher when both feet are on the ground. It's running into the kicker when the kicking leg is contacted, or if the rusher slides underneath the punter and "prevents him from returning both feet to the ground."

Given the number of exceptions, these penalties are rarely called. In fact, entering Thursday night's game, NFL referees had made only four calls for roughing the kicker and six more for running into one. Referee Ed Hochuli's crew had called a total of four; no other crew had called more than one; and 10 hadn't called any.

Fast-forward to the second quarter of Thursday night's game. We saw Oakland Raiders special-teams player Ray-Ray Armstrong dive in an attempt to block Dustin Colquitt's punt for the Kansas City Chiefs. Colquitt got the punt off cleanly but then fell as Armstrong slid beneath him.

Replays showed that Armstrong made only mild contact, at best, with Colquitt. So what's your call?

If you said, "running into the kicker," you're right.

The Raiders sideline erupted when referee John Parry made the call, presumably noting the lack of contact between Armstrong and Colquitt. But the play was a textbook demonstration of the second definition for running into the kicker. Armstrong slid underneath Colquitt, preventing him from landing both feet cleanly on the ground. Parry made the right call based on the wording of the rulebook.

The general intent of these rules is to protect punters from injury when they're in a vulnerable position. Over the years, the league has tried to account for unavoidable and/or mild contact, leading to the 500-odd words in the rulebook devoted to adjudicating a collision between a rusher and a kicker. So it goes.

Note: As always, the bar graph at the top of this post documents the per-game frequency of all penalty calls this season, by crew. Carl Cheffers' crew continues to be the most active, but his average has dropped in recent weeks and now stands at 19.6.

Overall in the NFL, penalties in the past three weeks have dropped significantly. The average number of penalties per week through Week 8 was 251.8. In Weeks 9-11, the totals have twice been 190 and once 189.
The start of Week 12 means only one thing in these parts. It's time to start playing with ESPN's Playoff Machine, which provides playoff seeding for any series of regular-season game results you can imagine.

The possibilities are particularly relevant now, at a time when two-thirds of NFL teams (21 of 32) are either sitting in a playoff position or are within one game of it. And even as the NFL seems destined to expand the postseason field, perhaps as early as next year, the NFC South is vying to send a sub.-500 team to the playoffs. It's not too difficult, in fact, to find scenarios where someone clinches the NFC South with just five wins.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMike Evans and the Bucs are 2-8, yet very much alive in the NFC South race.
Currently, the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons are atop the division at 4-6, with the Carolina Panthers (3-7-1) only semi-comatose at their heels. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 2-8, a near-fatal record in most years but one that has kept them in contention as Thanksgiving approaches. In fact, a 4-2 finish could be all the Bucs need.

That's right. If everything goes their way -- and with six weeks remaining, there are so many variables -- the Bucs could win the division at 6-10. The Panthers could win it with as few as five victories, as could the Falcons. It appears the Saints would need at least six victories to win the title, based on tiebreakers. (Note: I didn’t consider future ties in generating these scenarios.)

The NFC South debacle conjures bad memories of the 2010 NFC West race, the only other instance since 1967 when a division leader has been two games under .500 this late in the season, per the Elias Sports Bureau. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks overcame the St. Louis Rams in Week 17 to win the NFC West at 7-9.

What would you think if the 5-11 Falcons hosted an 11-5 Philadelphia Eagles team on wild-card weekend, while a 10-6 San Francisco 49ers team stayed home? That could happen, according to the Playoff Machine.

How would you react if the 11-5 49ers had to make a cross-country trip to face the 5-10-1 Panthers, with the 10-6 Eagles home for the holidays? That could happen as well.

Expanding the playoffs a year after a sub-.500 team wins its division might be a bad look, but as we discussed in the spring, it appears inevitable. It's also worth noting that adding a seventh playoff team to each conference, for a total of 14 league-wide, would reduce the chances of a team like the Eagles or 49ers in our scenarios of missing the postseason.

The NFL tabled discussions on a proposed 2015 playoffs expansion during its spring meeting, and perhaps the delay -- and the NFC South's situation -- will spur further discussion. Is there a way to reduce, but not eliminate, the reward of winning a division? Should playoff seeding be based purely on record, or is there a way to differentiate division winners from wild-card teams while still avoiding a 5-11 team hosting a playoff game?

Have an idea? Leave it in the comments section. We have plenty of time to hash it out. And who knows? Maybe an NFC South team will emerge to make the discussion moot for another year.


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Thursday, 12/18
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