You Make The Call: Was JuJu's block on Burfict illegal? | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
ESPN Monday Night Football

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.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

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:

Sound Off! Let's hear what you have to say in our comments section

We require all users to register on our website in order to maintain a friendly community. If you wish to continue, you may sign up for a free SCU Black membership or you may enjoy ad-free browsing of our site and other special features by upgrading to an SCU Gold membership.

  1. Bob Thomas says:

    Having watched all the angles in stop-frame mode, I cannot see why the hit was called illegal. Juju led with his shoulder into the front of Burfict’s chest. There may have been helmet contact, but if so, it was incidental and secondary, not intentional or part of the initial contact. Juju definitely led with his shoulder. Burfict was a potential tackler, and Juju had good reason to throw the block. Brufict should have been expecting the hit, although it seems that he was caught unaware; however, Burfict’s unpreparedness for the hit is not Juju’s fault. It was just good football. It was a hell of a hit, but it was a legal hit. As for the taunting, that deserved a penalty and was poor sportsmanship.

  2. Hawk26 says:

    I’ve watched the replays, numerous times, of Smith-Schuster’s block (hit) on Burfict and see nothing illegal about the hit. Smith-Schuster led with his right shoulder and planted it in Burfict’s left shoulder/upper chest — legal by NFL rules. There was probably some incidental helmet-to-helmet contact, but you’ll always have that in football. Smith-Schuster did not lead with the crown of his helmet, but he did put one helleva hit on Burfict.

    If you look at Burfict’s head/eyes in the replays you will see he’s totally focused on hitting (stopping) Bell and is UNAWARE of his surroundings and any downfield blockers. As a defensive player he let his guard down and paid a pretty hefty price… he was more intent on hitting Bell than he was on getting hit (blocked) himself. Smith-Schuster was penalized for a HARD — though legal — hit. It’s not often that a wide-out lays a hit like that on a linebacker.

    Disagree with NFL’s John Runyon suspension decision on Smith-Schuster, but the NFL is currently in a state of chaos. Seems it can’t get anything right anymore!

    Taunting penalty was a good call by the refs. You never stand over a fallen warrior and insult him… especially after you just cleaned his clock like Smith-Schuster did!

  3. Roger Goodell has always administered discipline based upon an action’s damage to the image of the game. His office ascertains total public reaction, and then passes judgment. There’s no substance, standard or fairness to his punishments, so we shouldn’t look for a logic in it. They should seek to oust the POS, rather than give him $40MM extension.

    • I agree. Dee Smith has been a cancer in the front office along with Goodell. They preach player safety but put very little in the Collective Bargaining Agreement – that the Steelers rejected, by the way – that actually protects players or holds them accountable if they were to police themselves. The players have to make a difference in how the game is played. If the NFLPA were to set a standard, the league and Goodell would be forced to act fairly and effectively or risk a strike. Thanks for your comments.

Leave a Reply