Week 16: Steelers at Packers (video)
The Steelers blocked a game-tying field goal. During the loose ball play, the Steelers are flagged for an illegal bat. Carl Cheffers’ crew enforces the penalty from the previous spot, giving the Packers a first and goal. There then followed a lengthy conference. Cheffers announced, “The ball was never possessed by Pittsburgh. That is why the penalty enforcement is from the previous spot. Automatic first down, Green Bay.”
Let’s unpack the sequence of the play:
- Steelers block the field goal. Even though it is blocked, this play remains a “kick” by rule.
- A penalty was thrown for defensive holding, as the back of the jersey of Mason Crosby, the Packers kicker, was grabbed. This flag was picked up.
- The ball was scooped by Steelers safety Ryan Clark (#25). The officials determined that Clark did not have possession of the ball. A loose ball recovery follows the same process as a pass completion: control ball, two feet in bounds, and an element of time to complete a football move. (Recovery of a loose ball is not reviewable, remember.) This is the linchpin of the entire play right here.
- Clark’s actions directed the ball to cornerback William Gay, who touched the loose ball.
- Defensive end Ziggy Hood bats the ball from the 7-yard line. At this point, no Steelers player has been ruled to have possessed the ball, so the play is still considered a “kick” because its status has not changed.
- Ball goes out of bounds at the 12-yard line.
- Hood’s play on the ball was not an attempt to secure the ball, and was directed away from his team’s goal line; therefore, Hood was flagged for illegally batting the ball.
Let us first examine the play as called: that Clark had not possessed the ball. Without the penalty, and without securing the loose ball, the only way the Steelers get the ball is by the Packers not converting fourth down. Since the penalty precedes the turnover on downs, the Steelers do not get the ball with “clean hands.” Therefore, the only enforcement point is the previous spot, which is an automatic first down for the Packers, as the officials ruled on this play.
Now, assume that it is ruled that Clark possessed the ball. At that point, the Steelers have a clean-hands recovery (penalty will come later in the play), and any subsequent live-ball penalty against the Steelers is enforced from that point.
Despite the Packers having a blocked kick and not having made a first down, the Packers get the advantage of a first down. It is no different if the Steelers committed any other automatic-first-down foul prior to the ball being kicked: Packers get the ball back no matter what happens on the play.
Did Clark possess the ball? If the loose-ball recovery for Clark was reviewable, I don’t see conclusive evidence to overturn. (It is not reviewable, let us underscore that. Update: An end zone angle showed a pretty definitive recovery by Clark, in my opinion.) Since the shovel/lateral was towards the Steelers own end zone, that action is not penalized as an illegal bat. Former officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos evaluates it this way:
I feel that as long as he had the ball in his hands and both feet on the ground, he was able to make a football move (pitching it backward), so, in my opinion, it was not a correct decision by the crew.
And, finally, the flag pickup for the defensive holding was correct, by Rule 12-1-5:
A defensive player may use his hands, arms, or body to push, pull, or ward off offensive players … (c) in a personal attempt to reach a loose ball that has touched the ground during a backward pass, fumble, or kick.
Pool reporter interview with Carl Cheffers
[Note: The pool report only gives the essence of the question, however Cheffers’ responses are transcribed.]
Q: [on the batting of the ball ruling following the Green Bay’s blocked field goal]
Cheffers: We had a blocked field goal, so that is a loose ball play and that remains a field goal, it remains a scrimmage kick, unless we rule that [the ball] has been possessed at some point during that play, which we did not rule on the field. We ruled that the ball continued to be a loose ball throughout the play. Batting is an intentional act. It’s when you strike the ball, and you cannot do that in the direction of your own goal line. So if you bat the ball forward, it is an illegal act. So we ruled that the player batted the ball forward, it was during the loose ball part of the scrimmage play and the only place we can enforce that foul is from the previous spot. So we went back to where the ball was snapped, we enforced the yardage, I believe it was half the distance [to the goal], and a foul on the defense is an automatic first down. So that’s basically how the play panned out.
Q: [on if there was a lot of discussion between the officials about whether or not there was possession during the play]
Cheffers: Yes, we did take quite a bit of time on that play, as I’m sure you saw, and the discussion revolved around whether or not there was possession in the field of play, and we ruled that there was no possession in the field of play, so that’s why we enforced it as a foul during a loose ball and went to the previous spot.
Q: [on if the Packers could have advanced the ball had they recovered the blocked field goal]
Cheffers: Yes, that is a good point. Any time the ball ends up back behind the line of scrimmage, and in this case it never crossed the line of scrimmage, but any time the ball is behind the line of scrimmage on a blocked field goal like that, the offensive team has every right to advance the ball. So there is an advantage to the defense to try and keep them from recovering the ball. So that is why there are rules about holding and all of that kind of stuff to try and keep the opponent from recovering the ball.
Mark Schultz contributed to this report. This post was updated shortly after publishing to include quote from Daopoulos.