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The “rough” job of rushing the passer in today’s NFL

Most players are unclear how to properly tackle a quarterback without drawing a penalty.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the first three weeks of the NFL season, you would emerge to find the most commonly-discussed issue pertaining to professional football is the increase in roughing-the-passer penalties. The Steelers’ Monday night game against the Buccaneers had four such penalties — the most in a single NFL game since 2001. With each penalty yielding an automatic first down, it’s a call that can change the landscape of any game.

Throughout the league, there have been 33 accepted roughing-the-passer penalties so far in 2018. Over the last 10 years, there have been only five weeks in an NFL season where the number of roughing-the-passer penalties have hit double digits. Two of those five weeks are in 2018. Week 1 of this season and its 15 accepted penalties is on the very top of the list, with this past week of 12 penalties coming in third. Only Week 6 of the 2015 season separates those two with 13 penalties.

Since 2009, the NFL has averaged 18.2 roughing-the-passer penalties during the first three weeks of the season. If the trend of 33 roughing penalties already amassed in 2018 continues throughout the regular season and playoffs, the projected number of penalties called would reach 184. To put this in perspective, there would be 77 more roughing penalties than in any other season during the last 10 years, and more than twice the average over that same time span.

The reason for the increase in penalties can be attributed to the “point of emphasis” the league has placed on certain aspects of the rule. This practice isn’t new to the NFL’s evolution of roughing-the-passer penalties. In 2009, hitting a quarterback low was emphasized as roughing after Tom Brady was lost in Week 1 of the previous season. As the concern with head injuries has increased across the board, any contact to the quarterback’s head has now become a roughing penalty as well. A prime example is from Monday night’s game when Ben Roethlisberger was struck in the head by Jason Pierre-Paul.

With the targeting zone in which a quarterback can be hit shrinking down from both the top and bottom, the point of emphasis this year is calling a roughing penalty when the defender is “falling with all or most of his body weight on the quarterback.” Interesting enough, it doesn’t matter at what point the quarterback releases the ball. It’s not about hitting him late; the penalty could be called even if the quarterback never gets the pass away.

The reason for this emphasis is, once again, based on an injury the previous year. When Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6 last season, the Green Bay Packers’ season took a turn for the worse. Losing a player of Rodgers’ caliber is detrimental to the NFL and its money-making machine. It would be on a similar level as the NBA losing LeBron James for half a season. Ironically, it’s Rogers’ own Green Bay Packers that currently lead the league in roughing-the-quarterback penalties with five violations.

Many self-proclaimed “football purists” are claiming the league is trying to turn the game into two-hand touch. Why is the NFL going to such lengths to protect the quarterback? I believe the answer is twofold. First, the quarterback position is the most marquee position on the field. Most football fans realize this fact. It’s the position most difficult to replace and thus commands the highest salary. Secondly, the quarterback is in the most vulnerable player on the field when attempting to pass. Once a quarterback drops back and is standing in the pocket, those players attempting to tackle him are moving at a much higher relative velocity. The quarterback isn’t exactly motionless, but he’s not traveling at a high rate of speed. The defenders, on the other hand, ate attempting to get to the quarterback as fast as possible. This puts the passer in a very precarious position.

This situation is much like a shortstop being targeted when someone slides into second base to break up a double play. Another example is when a hockey player crashes into the goalie. The person not moving at a high rate of speed is the one who takes the brunt of the collision.

So there’s a rationale behind protecting quarterbacks. But what are defenders to do? It seems as if the league has taken away the proper technique for tackling. The way I see it, there’s only one way (for now) to safely tackle the quarterback. It’s not easy, but it shouldn’t draw a penalty. The only technique I can think of to coach players would be to have the them wrap up, fall to the ground, and then pull the quarterback down on top of them.

A good example of this technique was demonstrated by Bud Dupree in the second quarter of the game Monday night. On a 3rd-and-14 play (which Tampa unfortunately converted), with about 9:00 left before the half, Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped back to pass. Dupree made the hit just as Fitzpatrick released to the ball. Dupree then fell to the side and pulled Fitzpatrick down on top of him while keeping himself between the quarterback and the ground.

As mentioned by Booger McFarland during the Monday night broadcast, this is a difficult technique. When a player is going full speed at someone, it’s not easy to fall to the side. But this is the NFL in which we’re now living.

Until players adjust to this new point of emphasis, you’ll most likely continue to see a high amount of roughing-the-passer penalties. The Competition Committee held a conference call this week to address the situation, but as most football experts predicted, there will be no change pertaining to how the plays are called. It’s going be up to defenders to learn a new “wrap, drop and pull” technique, in order to avoid any roughing penalties.

This new technique should work — until a quarterback gets hurt by having his leg rolled on by a falling defender — or the quarterback’s head gets whipped to the ground. Once this happens, the NFL will look to take away yet another option for defenders, out of fear of losing another moneymaker.