Between players, fans, and commentators not being sure what was going on during the safety kick on Sunday, it may be helpful to everyone to explain exactly what happened and why the Steelers lost the ball against the Browns.
What is a free kick?
A free kick is any kick that occurs when the defense is not free to rush the kicker in an attempt to make a block. Every kickoff is a free kick. There are different types of free kicks. After a safety occurs, it is considered a safety kick and has slightly different rules.
So what exactly is a safety kick and how is it different from a regular kickoff?
A safety kick is a special type a free kick that occurs whenever a team gives up a safety. It is described in Rule 6 Section 1 Article 1 Part b of the NFL rules as follows:
A safety kick puts the ball in play after a safety. A dropkick, placekick, or punt may be used for a safety kick. A tee cannot be used for a safety kick.
Additionally, the placement of the ball is described in Rule 6 Section 1 Article 2 Part a:
The restraining line for the kicking team shall be its 35-yard line for a kickoff and its 20-yard line for a safety kick.
So the major differences between a regular kickoff and a safety kick is that the kicker may not use a tee and the kick occurs from the 20 yard line. Most teams choose to punt the ball rather than use a holder in order to kick off, or to do a drop kick.
Can a team attempt an onside kick as a safety kick?
Yes. The rules are just the same as any free kick. The ball must travel 10 yards before being touched by the kicking team. This would make the 30 yard line as the restraining line for where the ball can be recovered without the receiving team having to touch the ball.
Can a player call for a fair catch on a safety kick?
Yes. As described in Rule 10 Section 2 Article 1:
A Fair Catch is an unhindered catch of an airborne scrimmage kick that has crossed the line of scrimmage, or of an airborne free kick, by a player of the receiving team who has given a valid fair catch signal.
So any punt (scrimmage kick) which crosses the line of scrimmage, or any free kick (including safety kicks), a player can signal for a fair catch.
One thing that should have occurred was FB Roosevelt Nix should have been flagged for a 15 yard penalty because of him calling for a fair catch. After Nix made the signal, he then attempted to block one of the Browns players. Rule 10 Section 2 Article 2 Item 5 states:
Illegal Block. Until the ball touches a teammate or an opponent, a player who makes a valid or invalid fair-catch signal is prohibited from blocking or initiating contact with a player of the kicking team.
Penalty: For an illegal block after a fair-catch signal: Loss of 15 yards from the spot of the foul. If the foul occurs in Team B’s end zone during a free kick, it is enforced from the previous spot.
Were the Browns allowed to advance the ball once they recovered the kick?
No. Rule 6 Section 1 Article 4 Part D1 states:
The ball is dead if: 1. it is caught or recovered by a player of the kicking team. If the catch or recovery is legal, the ball belongs to the kicking team at the dead-ball spot.
So what went wrong with the safety kick for the Steelers against the Browns?
Other than no player on the Steelers realizing it was a live ball to be recovered by anyone, the officials got to play correct. The only exception is they did not catch the penalty on Roosevelt Nix for blocking after signaling a fair catch.