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Morelli crew gives Steelers 9-yd 1st down

Week 15: Jets at Steelers

A  failure in basic  officiating crew mechanics is rare in the NFL. While there is room for argument on a judgment call or a missed call, errors in mechanics are inexcusable.

In the second quarter on a first-and-10 play from the Jets 35, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall gained nine yards. Line judge John Hussey clearly spotted the ball at the 26, way short of the line to gain (video). The CBS yellow-line graphic is estimated by a technician outside of the stadium, so it cannot be counted on for accuracy. However, we don’t need the benefit of the first-down graphic; we can clearly see that the Steelers had to advance to the 25.

(A similar instance happened in Week 14 between the Redskins and Buccaneers, but ultimately it appears that there was confusion, not an incorrect call. We hope to have a post up on that soon.)

There are two first down markers: the 10-yard chain and a reference (or “auxilary”) marker placed on the first down line on the sideline opposite the chain. The chain is the official demarcation of a first down, and we can clearly see that both stakes are placed exactly on the 35- and 25-yard lines. That is what makes this even more troubling, because it is certainly  easier to judge  a first-down line that is on, rather than between, the five-yard intervals.

Although not seen in the video, referee Pete Morelli would have signaled first down after the run. Only then would the chain crew advance to mark a new set of downs. However, head linesman George Hayward has a responsibility for the chain crew, and in this case, should have been the first to step in to correct the error. Hussey, as line judge, and opposite the head linesman, should have been the second one to call out the error. In addition, umpire Ruben Fowler, while hovering over the ball to maintain the spot until the next play, should have noticed that the ball did not advance to the 25-yard stripe, when the previous down was dead on the 35-yard line.

The spot of the ball in relation to the first-down marker can be challenged in replay, but the Jets would have had to use one of their challenges.

The Steelers completed the drive with a touchdown. Following the erroneous first down, the Steelers had an incomplete pass and were sacked, which, not counting a different play selection based on the down, would have brought up a 4th-and-8.

An odd side effect of the phantom first down: fantasy football. Mendenhall rushed for exactly 100 yards, including the  one yard the statisticians had to give him in order to credit him with the first down.

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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2 thoughts on “Morelli crew gives Steelers 9-yd 1st down

  1. I caught this live as it happened and wondered how such an obvious mistake could be made.

    Aside from the fantasy football implications already mentioned, this call wound up giving the Steelers a touchdown they likely would not have otherwise scored. Observe the next few plays (source: :

    1-10-NYJ 25 (10:25) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short right to 34-R.Mendenhall (57-B.Scott).

    -This should’ve been 2nd & 1, resulting in 3rd & 1

    2-10-NYJ 25 (10:20) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at NYJ 33 for -8 yards (58-B.Thomas). WATCH HIGHLIGHT

    -This should’ve been 3rd & 1, resulting in 4th & 9. The Steelers may have gone for it, given the field position (long field goal attempts are rare at Heinz Field), but since they don’t go for it on 4th down often, more likely would’ve punted to pin the Jets deep. Instead:

    3-18-NYJ 33 (9:43) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep right to 86-H.Ward to NYJ 15 for 18 yards (22-B.Pool).

    Three plays later, Roethlisberger passes to Spaeth for a 9-yard touchdown

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