In Saturday’s preseason matchup between the Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills, there was a hit so big that it made headlines.
As he looked up for a pass, only a couple second passed before Bills’ linebacker Andre Smith slipped through the line unblocked, and then—BAM:
Justin Fields got hammered pic.twitter.com/9LeNfFcc4z
— CJ Fogler (@cjzer0) August 21, 2021
Fields’ helmet was knocked off, and even his headband went flying as a result of the hard hit.
The play drew a flag for roughing the passer—a call that’s drawn plenty of controversy in the NFL over the years.
Let’s take a closer look at the rules behind this penalty and why it’s been a source of contention in pro football.
What is roughing the passer?
Roughing the passer is a familiar penalty in football.
Essentially, if a defensive player hits the passer after they release the ball, roughing the passer is called.
When a defensive player does make contact before the ball is released, they can’t hit the quarterback’s helmet or hit them below the waist.
If they do, a flag is thrown for roughing the passer.
For this call, the defensive team receives a 15-yard penalty, and their opponents get an automatic first down.
Despite this relatively simple definition of roughing the passer, actually making the call during the course of a game isn’t always so straightforward.
Reading into the roughing the passer rules
There are some additional technicalities which can make it tricky for officials to implement the roughing the passer call consistently on the field.
For example, the defensive player is permitted to make contact with the passer if their momentum prevents them from stopping once the ball has been released.
Referees are permitted to make judgment calls on a case-by-case basis based on the severity of the impact and the perceived intent of the defensive player.
For example, if a defensive player slams the quarterback on the ground with unnecessary force despite making contact before the pass is released, they might receive a roughing the passer penalty.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened with Justin Fields in Saturday’s game against the Bills.
Fields still had the ball in hand when he was hit by Smith, but the hit was so forceful that a flag was thrown on the play.
That’s also what happened to Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who in 2018 was called for several similar plays, including this one against Washington quarterback Alex Smith:
This is a foul for roughing the passer – the defender lands “with all or most of the defender’s weight” on the passer. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b): https://t.co/s9YKN8NLuT #GBvsWAS pic.twitter.com/ei2QZkvvzx
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) September 23, 2018
Many fans defended Matthews, calling this a fair sack.
But according to NFL rules, it was deemed an excessive hit.
Matthews also couldn’t catch a break in another 2018 game, this time against the Minnesota Vikings, in which he received another roughing the passer call that took away a possible game-ending interception near the end of the fourth quarter:
Do not hit quarterbacks high. Do not hit quarterbacks low. Do not hit them in the midriff. Roughing the passer on Clay Matthews. pic.twitter.com/pFyMnXxqxG
— Ollie Connolly (@OllieConnolly) September 16, 2018
Many fans thought this call was over the top since Matthews made what appeared to be fair hit at practically the same moment the ball was released.
It’s easy to see how refs might have trouble making these calls in the moment with such a fine line between a fair hit and a foul.
What’s a pass rusher to do?
Some of these technicalities regarding roughing the passer are relatively new.
In 2018, a change was made to the NFL rulebook regarding this type of penalty.
Essentially, the new rule made it illegal for a pass rusher to land on top of the offensive player with most or all of their body weight.
If you go back to Clay Matthews’ hit that took down Alex Smith, you can see this rule change in action.
However, a number of coaches, players, and fans found the new rules too limiting, making it much more difficult to achieve a legal sack without accruing a personal foul.
For one, it’s difficult for any player not to land this way during a tackle simply based on how fast they’re moving and the force required to bring the passer down.
In one instance, the rule change may have even contributed to a serious player injury.
This happened when Miami Dolphins defensive lineman William Hayes attempted to avoid landing fully on Los Angeles Raiders quarterback Derek Carr in 2018.
Unfortunately, Hayes suffered an ACL injury in the process:
Here's the injury that happened to William Hayes.
He's out for the season because he tried to obey a ridiculous rule. pic.twitter.com/jomoaGI8MP
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 24, 2018
What to watch for in roughing the passer calls
It’s difficult for the officials to apply roughing the passer rules consistently since so much of the outcome is based on each ref’s individual analysis of player intent and what constitutes illegal contact.
Things become even more heated in high-stakes games, such as playoff matchups and the Super Bowl.
If a player seems to fall oddly on a quarterback, like Hayes did, it’s highly possible that they were trying to avoid a penalty for roughing the passer.
Additionally, when a call for roughing the passer is made, take a closer look at what happened to see how the ref may have interpreted it.
For example, they may be looking for the point of contact, whether it was too high or too low.
Or, they might have decided that the hit came too late or that it was excessively forceful.
While the call from the Bears vs. Bills game on Saturday may have not been controversial, it’s worth keeping this rule in mind as the NFL wraps up preseason play and begins the 2021 season on Thursday, September 9.