You Make The Call is a weekly feature from Steel City Underground which will challenge fans to examine officiating call(s) made in the previous Pittsburgh Steelers game. The goal is not to whine about calls, as we cannot change them long after the fact! Instead, this column is an opportunity to open discussion where fans can debate on and better educate themselves about the rules of the game.
I'd be a liar if I told you there wouldn't be a least one call during Monday Night Football's AFC North battle between the Steelers and Bengals which would end up in this column this week!
The call in question, a block by Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, should make for another interesting "You Make The Call" segment. Before we get started, let's reacquaint ourselves with the play, in real time.
There were two penalties called on the play as flags flew in from everywhere. What we don't know is how many of those flags were for the first announced, and declined, penalty: an unnecessary roughness call against Smith-Schuster for his block on Vontaze Burfict.
For those who watched the full ESPN broadcast, former NFL head coach and current TV analyst Jon Gruden had a field day with this play, going as far as to call it "sickening" and suggesting the receiver be ejected from the game.
Let's have another look from a different angle:
Clearly, you can call it illegal because it was called on the field: the question at hand is, should it have been flagged?
As I dig into the rules, please keep in mind the other penalty called was unsportsmanlike conduct, for JuJu standing on top of Burfict and taunting him. That is not to debate: he did it and deserved the penalty.
Now, let's read some excerpts from the NFL rulebook about unnecessary roughness and how it pertains to blocking opponents.
ARTICLE 2. LEGAL BLOCK BY OFFENSIVE PLAYER. An offensive player is permitted to block an opponent by contacting him with his head, shoulders, hands, and/or outer surface of the forearm, or with any other part of his body that is not prohibited by another rule.
This part seems pretty clear. The offensive player (JuJu) is permitted to block Burfict with his head, shoulders, hands, and forearm provided it's not in violation of another rule.
Since the call on the field was ruled unnecessary roughness, let's see how that might override the above text:
ARTICLE 6. UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS. There shall be no unnecessary roughness. This shall include, but will not be limited to:
(g) unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead;
I wouldn't classify JuJu as "unnecessarily" running into Burfict, as the Bengals linebacker isn't out of the play whatsoever.
(i) using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily;
Here's where things get interesting: football can be a game of angles. The TV angle, including several of them, clearly show that Smith-Schuster leads into Burfict with his shoulder.
From another angle, the blow by JuJu looks much worse. It still doesn't change the fact that Smith-Schuster led with his shoulder, but due to the viewing angle, it may look like the wide receiver went into the play with his helmet.
And here is a still shot of the same angle above.
The NFL rules are pretty clear about what constitutes an illegal hit with the helmet, which has it's own article (8) within the book. The play wasn't classified as such, but the final portion of the unnecessary roughness rule states:
Penalty: For unnecessary roughness: Loss of 15 yards. The player may be disqualified if the action is judged by the official(s) to be flagrant. If the foul is by the defense, it is also an automatic first down.
Note: When in question about a roughness call or potentially dangerous tactics, the covering official(s) should always call unnecessary roughness.
That leads to the flag being thrown, due to there being any question of a foul on the play. The referees are instructed to penalize such hard hits even if they are in doubt of their legality.
Do you believe, however, this is a correct application of the rule? Clearly, the officials didn't believe he was leading with the crown of his helmet or else the call on the field would've been applied as such. Smith-Schuster also came in straight to Burfict's upper body: not his lower body, and most importantly, not from the side or from behind.
Did the officials question the legality of the hit due to game control? That is, did they feel if they allowed JuJu's block, the in-game violence may escalate? Was it due to the play in question being against the home team?
These are other factors to consider, which you won't see within the black-and-white lines of the rule book.
So now it's up to you to make the call? Clean block or illegal?
I may have led you some this time around and tipped my cap as to how I feel about the play, but I'll stop here and leave my reply below with your comments.
Update since article was published
It appears the league will suspend JuJu Smith-Schuster for the hit on Burfict:
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 5, 2017
Wouldn't that assume Burfict wasn't chasing the play and couldn't see JuJu coming... from right in FRONT OF HIM???
— Steel City Underground (@steelcityundrgr) December 5, 2017