Week 3: Steelers at Bears (video)
A field goal by Steelers kicker Chris Boswell was blocked by the Chicago defensive line, and was recovered by Bears defensive back Marcus Cooper who began running untouched, for a score late in the second quarter. Cooper began to slow down while approaching the goal line (in Leon Lett-esque fashion), and prior to breaking the plane, was stripped by Pittsburgh tight end Vance McDonald, and the ball rolled into the end zone.
While bouncing in the end zone, the ball was pushed beyond the end line and out of the end zone by holder Jordan Berry, creating a touchback. Referee Clete Blakeman then threw a flag for an illegal bat penalty on Berry. Initially, the penalty was announced, and Blakeman stated that the penalty “is not enforced”, resulting in the end of the first half. Chicago coaches then vehemently argued for a safety. Blakeman then announced that the play would go under review.
There are two aspects to the review: whether or not Cooper fumbled the ball before crossing the goal line, and the enforcement of the illegal bat penalty in the end zone. Reviewing penalty enforcement was a new addition to replay during the 2016 offseason. Cooper clearly fumbled the ball in the field of play, and the ball went forward and through the back of the end zone. By Rule 8-7-3-4-(a):
If a ball is fumbled in the field of play, and goes forward into the opponent’s end zone and over the end line or sideline, a touchback is awarded to the defensive team.
Even though the illegal bat by Pittsburgh forced the ball out of bounds, the impetus is still applied to Chicago, since the Bears’ fumble is what put the ball into the end zone.
One aspect of the play down, one to go. The review of the enforcement of the penalty was in question. An illegal bat is when the ball is intentionally batted toward an opponent’s goal line, or in any direction while in the end zone. The latter prevailed in this scenario. Although the foul occurred in the end zone, this is not the spot of penalty enforcement, so that would not create a safety. By Rule 14-4-6:
If there is a foul by either team during a backward pass or fumble, the Basic Spot is the spot of the backward pass or fumble.
Since the penalty is enforced from the spot of the fumble, Chicago will possess the ball half the distance to the goal line from the spot of the fumble, which was the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Also, since Pittsburgh was the “acting defense” during this situation, Chicago received an untimed down.
Just when all thought the rules jargon was over, it was not. On the untimed down, Chicago left guard Charles Leno Jr. committed a false start penalty. This foul does not revoke the untimed down, since there was no snap on the play.
Referee Clete Blakeman explains the call
Blakeman spoke to a pool reporter to answer questions about the play.
Q: [What happened] on original call on blocked field goal, fumble by Marcus Cooper at Pittsburgh 1?
Blakeman: The original call was the runner had fumbled at the 1, and then there was a bat in the end zone, which is an illegal bat. It was originally the offensive team, the kicking team, that committed the bat. So the original call was that we wouldn’t extend the period on that. Then we got into replay.
Q: Confusion on the play?
Blakeman: The kicking team [Pittsburgh] is offense. The defense [Chicago] is defense. But when we have a block and a return, now what happens is that they flip-flop designations. So in this case, the return team, originally the defense, now becomes offense, and the kicking team is now defense. … The fumble, we confirmed with replay that it did occur at the 1. Now we got a loose-ball fumble in the end zone, and it gets batted by the defense, which is Pittsburgh. We go back to the spot of the fumble to enforce that penalty against the defense, so we go from the 1 to the half-yard line. And because it’s a foul against the defense, we now extend for an untimed down.”
Q: If ball would have gone out of bounds without any infraction [such as illegal batting]?
Blakeman: Touchback. [Steelers ball]
Q: If Pittsburgh would have recovered fumble?
Blakeman: A touchback.
Q: If Bears would have recovered fumble in end zone?
Blakeman: Because we’re inside of two minutes of the first half, any fumble situation like that we would go back to the spot of the fumble.