Beginning this season, officials will be applying the following interpretations to the roughing the passer rule that caused much controversy last season and that we covered numerous times (here, here, and here among them). Through the first three weeks last season, officials threw 34 flags for roughing the passer. Football Zebras has obtained the mechanics for roughing the passer calls that was distributed to all referees.
According to those officiating mechanics, there are six basic interpretations that the officials will be looking to apply here as they determine which hits warrant a roughing the passer call and which do not. The interpretations look to draw a clear distinction between unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer. During an officiating media availability at Giants training camp, referee Shawn Hochuli told Football Zebras that there were no adjustments to the interpretations during the offseason. “Roughing the passer is going to be exactly the same,” he said.
On quarterback options, any quarterback who keeps the ball and does not pitch becomes a runner and loses the special protections afforded to passers. Any hit to the quarterback that results in a penalty would therefore fall under the unnecessary roughness rules, whether or not the quarterback is in the pocket.
In this example, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes runs the ball on a speed option on a 4th-and-1 play in week three against the 49ers. He does not pitch the ball and keeps it for the first down instead. 49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh applies the hit, legal in this instance since Mahomes is now a runner under the rules.
Outside the pocket but not a runner
When the quarterback exits the pocket but does not look to become a runner, he loses the 1-step rule and protections against low hits but retains all the other protections a quarterback would normally have in the pocket. If he is outside the pocket and throwing on the run, the quarterback still retains the same protections as he would have in the pocket except he loses the low hit and 1-step protections as well. If he re-establishes a passing posture, he regains all special protections under the roughing the passer rule.
In week one against the Browns, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger exits the pocket to his left and throws while on the run to the back of the end zone. Browns defensive end Miles Garrett, though he takes more than one step before hitting the quarterback, hits Roethlisberger and lands on him with all his weight, textbook example of roughing the passer outside the pocket.
Advance as a runner
When a quarterback drops back to pass, pulls the ball down and tucks it to advance as a runner he no longer has the roughing the passer protections afforded to the quarterback dropping back to pass, even when his path of advance is within the pocket. Any penalty on the quarterback for late hit or hit to the head would fall under the unnecessary roughness criteria.
Here in week two, Cam Newton drops back and scans the field before pulling the ball down, tucking, and running as a runner. He exits up the middle of the pocket and advances the ball downfield. As he goes to slide, Falcons defender Damontae Kazee launches into Newton, making contact with the quarterback in the head/neck area. Kazee would eventually be ejected for the helmet-to-helmet contact.
Pocket protection until quarterback becomes a runner
In a similar interpretation to the one above, the quarterback keeps all the roughing the passer protections while moving forward in the pocket, until he becomes a runner and advances the ball.
In this play from week 14, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass in a game against the Falcons. As he stepped up into the pocket to run, he kept the passing posture until he crossed the line of scrimmage and became a runner. He was eventually legally contacted as he slid because contact was imminent.
Blocked into the quarterback
If the defender is blocked or fouled into the quarterback there is no violation of any of the roughing-the-passer rules unless the contact is avoidable. This is the same standard that applies for low hits.
In a preseason game last season between the Jaguars and Vikings, a Vikings defender was held and thrown to the ground by a Jaguars offensive linemen. The defender hit Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler low at the knees and took him down for a sack. Since the contact was unavoidable and there was holding on the play, the defender was not penalized for a low hit on a quarterback in the pocket.
Quarterbacks who hand-off or fake hand-off
When a quarterback hands off to a teammate executes a play action fake, his only protection falls under the normal unnecessary roughness rules. Helmet-to-helmet contact is not necessarily illegal.
In a week one game against the Dolphins, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was hit after executing a zone read hand off. Mariota is still presenting himself as a potential ball carrier by his movement after the handoff. The official interpretation is that they feel the defense can “clearly see” he does not have the ball. It’s not a very convincing argument, but it is the standard.
There was no flag thrown on this play, but in last season’s week one officiating video, Al Riveron stated that he believes this should have been flagged. However, at full game speed it is important to note that these calls are often very tight to hard to assess, especially while defending a zone read play where the quarterback fakes his run action and where the mesh point handoff occurs very late in the sequence. Under this interpretation, the defender does not get the benefit of reacting to a quarterback posing as a ball carrier.
For more examples of what constitutes roughing the passer and what constitutes a legal hit on the quarterback, see the video from last season with several more examples explained by Riveron.