Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

24 Oct 2012

Officiating: The "Push Out of Bounds" Defense

New Orleans Saints 35 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28
Fourth-and-9, Tampa Bay at NO 9, :05 of Q4

5-J.Freeman pass short left to 19-M.Williams for 9 yards, TOUCHDOWN NULLIFIED by Penalty. PENALTY on TB-19-M.Williams, Illegal Touch Pass, 0 yards, enforced at NO 9 - No Play.

Dan: If you can chuck a guy out of bounds and then he can't be the first person to touch the ball, why don't all CB's chuck their WR's out of bounds and then leave them alone for the rest of the play?
Also, if you can chuck your receiver when the QB rolls out, why don't all defenders immediately chuck their guys to the ground when the QB rolls?

Dan is, of course, referring to Mike Williams' penalty for illegal touching of a live ball, which ended the game. We've heard a lot about how the officials made the correct call, but not so much why. First, the definition of ineligible receiver (Rule 8-1-6 (d)):

An eligible receiver who has been out of bounds prior to or during a pass, even if he has re-established himself inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands

But there is an exception, which seemed to be applicable:

Exception: If an eligible receiver is forced out of bounds by a foul of the defender, including illegal contact, defensive holding, or defensive pass interference, he will become eligible to legally touch the pass as soon as he re-establishes himself inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands

To answer your question, Dan, what happened on this play would have been illegal contact (8-4-3), but contact cannot be called unless "the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball." A defender can still be penalized for defensive holding (8-4-6) if the contact is a hold and prior to the pass, or for pass interference, which is philosophically the combination of holding and contact after the pass is thrown (8-5-2). So, while you can push a receiver out of bounds if the quarterback has already left the pocket, you could not grab the receiver and throw him out of bounds, since holding has no pocket exception. You could not do either after the ball has been thrown.

The other important point is a combination of tactics and information. While there is usually a coach on the sideline shouting to the defense when the quarterback has rolled out, the chances of each individual defensive back hearing and understanding that message over the noise of the game is relatively small. The timing is also incredibly specific: the second the ball leaves the quarterback's hands (and everyone, principally the referee, is shouting the ball is away), contact that was previously legal is immediately pass interference, provided the ball is thrown in remotely the same direction as the receiver. So, in order for this scheme to work, the defensive back has to:

1. Know that the quarterback is out of the pocket, based on incomplete information; and
2. Know that the pass has not yet been thrown, which can happen at any time; and
3. Shove the receiver out of bounds in a way that includes no holding (and the officials are going to watch this one like a hawk).

If any of those three conditions fail, it's a penalty, and all three penalties (illegal contact, defensive holding and defensive pass interference) carry an automatic first down for the offense. Combined with the fact that most sideline routes are run halfway between the numbers and the sideline (not next to the line itself) and the extreme risk associated with this strategy, it's small wonder no team has made it a significant part of their defensive scheme.

And if anyone did, the competition committee would just remove the pocket exception.

Posted by: Mike Kurtz on 24 Oct 2012

47 comments, Last at 02 Apr 2013, 8:10pm by Andrea

Comments

1
by RedDog (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 5:34pm

"And if anyone did, the competition committee would just remove the pocket exception."

They can't, as when the qb leaves the pocket, the play is a potential running play.

It sure looked like the defender intentionally pushed him out of bounds and did not seem to bother when he caught the ball. The defender surely realized the situation and intentionally pushed.

8
by dbostedo :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 7:59pm

The competition committee can pretty much do anything it wants as long as it doesn't violate the CBA, right? So, for instance, they could certainly institute a rule that says pushing a receiver out of bounds is always illegal until the runner crosses the line of scrimmage.

2
by RichardD (not verified) :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 6:15pm

This actually can be a big part of the game, especially in the end zone where receivers are often very close to out of bounds anyway. The New Orleans press reported the Saints defenders saying they had discussed this play in practice.

Also, it may seem unwise for the defense to rely on the officials to get the call right. However, since the call is reviewable, there is no reason not to take the chance.

An interesting question is what should a receiver do if pushed out of bounds in this situation? Probably start "blocking" the heck out of the DB's so the other receivers have a better chance to get open while the QB is scrambling, or so the QB can run into the end zone.

3
by akn :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 6:22pm

The play may be reviewable, but penalties (and non-calls) are not, no matter how blatant they may be.

If an ineligible WR started trying to block, they run the same timing risks that are outlined in the article, such as offensive interference/holding/illegal contact. The most prudent thing that WR can do is probably run a decoy route away from the scrambling QB and hope that an unaware DB goes with him.

4
by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 6:55pm

penalties (and non-calls) are not [reviewable], no matter how blatant they may be.

Some are, most aren't. Twelve men on the field is the most obvious example of one which is. Others include illegal forward pass from beyond the line of scrimmage, and I believe punting beyond the line of scrimmage is also technically reviewable.

It seems reasonable that the call of whether a receiver stepped out of bounds before touching a forward pass would be reviewable too, similarly to it being reviewable whether a special teams coverage player was in the end zone when downing a punt.

5
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 7:22pm

Illegal touching is in fact reviewable (you see this happen on punts occasionally). The reviewable parts are whether the toucher went oob (clearly did in this case), and whether he actually touched the ball (again very clear).

6
by Travis :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 7:57pm

Gronkowski scored a touchdown in the first Jets game last year that was nullified when replay showed he had stepped out of bounds seconds earlier.

3-11-NYJ 14 (10:48) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski for 14 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Penalty on NYJ-J.Leonhard, Illegal Contact, declined.
The Replay Assistant challenged the pass completion ruling, and the play was REVERSED.
(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski for 14 yards, TOUCHDOWN NULLIFIED by Penalty.
PENALTY on NE-R.Gronkowski, Illegal Touch Pass, 5 yards, enforced at NYJ 14 - No Play.

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by dbostedo :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 7:57pm

"The timing is also incredibly specific: the second the ball leaves the receiver's hands (and everyone, principally the referee, is shouting the ball is away)..."

That should be "the quarterback's hands".

16
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 12:41am

That would fall into the category of small, BUT VERY CRUCIAL typos.... I wondered about it for a couple seconds myself.

9
by nat :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 10:08pm

I did not know about the refs shouting "the ball is away". Another tidbit about reffing technique. Thanks.

10
by IAmJoe :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 10:27pm

Somewhat related - didn't they get rid of the force-out rule, so if you land out, you are out and the pass is incomplete?

I don't understand why defenders on jumpballs, especially along sidelines, don't just grab the receiver when he jumps and toss him out of bounds. "Sure, you can catch it, I'll just make sure you come down out of bounds".

12
by MJK :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 10:45pm

You'd have to grab/shove the receiver at the moment the ball arrives, or afterwards, otherwise it would be DPI. And if you're already arriving at that moment, I think most defenders would try to just break up the pass, as they're coached and trained to do everywhere else on the field.

I'm sure some do try to force the WR out as an alterantive strategy, but it's risky. The DB would have to know how close he is to the sideline, and have to think he had better odds of making the force out rather than breaking up the pass. And he would have to make the decision in a split second. In that scenario, I think most players would go with their instinctive training most of the time.

13
by PatsFan :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 11:06pm

Maybe this is something NE DBs should do. Can't be any worse than the results they're already obtaining...

15
by tuluse :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 11:50pm

The defender would be guilty of holding and or dpi.

18
by Travis :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 12:46am

There's actually a rule that covers this.

Rule 8-1-3: Item 6: Carried Out of Bounds. If a player, who is in possession of the ball, is held up and carried out of bounds by an opponent before both feet or any part of his body other than his hands touches the ground inbounds, it is a completed or intercepted pass.

So if a defender carries (rather than merely forces) an airborne receiver out of bounds, it counts as a completion.

I've seen this come into play just once - I think it was USC-Arizona State, somewhere around 2005.

29
by IAmJoe :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 10:47pm

Now that pretty much settles it. Thank you.

11
by MJK :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 10:42pm

So here's a question. Scenario:

WR is near the sideline or back of the endzone, and the QB does not leave the pocket. Before the pass is thrown, the DB shoves the WR out of bounds, which should be illegal contact. However, the refs miss it live, although they see the WR out of bounds, running back in. The QB, either not realizing the WR went out of bounds, or realizing that he was shoved out, throws him a completed pass. The officials throw the flag for illegal touching.

1) Can the offenses coach challenge the ruling? Illegal touching is reviewable, so he could presumably challenge whether the WR stepped out of bounds, but can he challenge whether it was legal to come back in and catch it if he was pushed out illegally, even if the illegal contact penalty was not called? Since illegal contact (or the lack thereof) isn't reviewable.

2) Assuming the coach does challenge, can the refs overturn the illegal touching penalty by observing that illegal contact SHOULD have been called? I know they can't call it after the fact based on replay, but does that matter for the illegal touching rule? Does illegal touching only become legal touching if illegal contact COULD have been called, or only if it WAS called? (In other words, is an uncalled penalty assumed to have never happened, even if it's obvious that it did on replay?)

14
by Mike Kurtz :: Wed, 10/24/2012 - 11:19pm

That's a doozy. Note that there isn't much actual guidance for non-NFL officials on this. With that in mind, here's my take:

The coach can challenge the ruling on the field on a passing play in certain circumstances (15-9 (b)):

2. Touching of a forward pass by an ineligible receiver

This allows the referee to review the play to determine whether the receiver was eligible. In our case, he is ineligible, but he could be eligible by rule if he was "forced out of bounds by a foul of the defender" (8-1-6 Ex).

"Foul" in the NFL is "any infraction of a playing rule" (3-11). Now, what the league rules prevent the referee from doing is changing the result of a play based on the commission of certain fouls (in this case, illegal contact). All that means is that he cannot after the fact penalize the defense for contact. He can, however, make a ruling on the eligibility of a receiver. Since part of that ruling involves whether a foul was committed, he is able to ascertain whether the defensive back committed illegal contact (but not assess a penalty). Since your receiver fits one of the exceptions to ineligibility, and the referee is allowed to review the play for receiver eligibility, I'd say the illegal touching penalty is waived off and the result of the play as a completion is awarded as the result of the challenge.

19
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 12:49am

Mike, that seems right to my simple, reptilian brain. And in reality, there would be no penalty to assess against the D (if the penalty were callable based on replay) since it would be a TD and the O would surely decline anyway. (Or is that the kind of penalty that's assessed on the subsequent kickoff? I don't think so, but maybe.)

Maybe this explains the infamous (to Colts fans) and game-winning Kordell Stewart TD catch from the 95 AFCCG. The ref was standing about three feet away and appeared to be looking at his feet, perhaps concluding that he was pushed OB.

Ah, nothing like grinding a 17 year-old ax.

20
by Travis :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 1:20am

My guess (and it's only a guess) is that the supposed illegal contact could not be called on replay if it wasn't called on the field.

I've never seen illegal formation reviewed, but would following your reading of 15-9-b-2 make it reviewable? Consider these situations:

1) An otherwise-eligible tight end is covered up by the outside receiver at the snap, but no flag is thrown for illegal formation. The should-be-ineligible tight end catches a pass. Could the defense challenge?

2) The tight end is not covered up, but a flag for illegal formation is incorrectly thrown. The not-really-ineligible tight end catches a pass. Could the offense challenge?

24
by Mike Kurtz :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 9:45am

1. No, because the result of the play was a catch, not a flag for illegal touching by an ineligible receiver. 15-6-2-b-2 specifically allows for review of illegal touching, not for a review to determine eligibility.

2. I don't believe so, so long as the penalty for illegal formation is accepted, that is the result of the play and non-reviewable. If it was declined but a flag for illegal touching was thrown, I believe it would play out like the earlier hypothetical.

17
by Bobman :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 12:43am

I agree with Mike, that is a doozy. Along with the old George Carlin line, If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock so big that He Himself can't lift it?

23
by dbostedo :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 9:16am

Or better yet, the Homer Simpson line, "Could God microwave a burrito so hot that He Himself could not eat it?"

28
by TomC :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 9:27pm

Yeah, I think that one predates George Carlin by a couple thousand years.

31
by thehotcorner (not verified) :: Fri, 10/26/2012 - 2:53pm

Look back at the GB vs SEA game a few weeks ago. The uncalled OPI on Tate, when he clearly shoved the db to the ground did not come into play during the review, because it was not a reviewable play.

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by kyleawest :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 2:43am

I'm fairly certain Cortland Finnegan took advantage of this rule earlier in the season, possibly in the Rams Redskins game.

The QB left the pocket and he promptly knocked his receiver to the ground.

22
by Podge (not verified) :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 8:42am

I was about to post that. He did exactly this (wildly effectively) against the Cards too. He was covering Early Doucet who ran an out, then as Kolb scrambled turned it into a streak along the sidelines. Finnegan was covering him, saw Kolb come out of the packet and just whacked Doucet out of bounds (and to the floor). It drew a flag, but Finnegan (successfully) argued that it was legal. It was on the Rams sideline as well, so I'd guess Jeff Fisher was arguing it as well, which is usually pretty effective.

Obviously Janoris Jenkins drew a holding penalty on the other side of the field, so it didn't matter, but this is exactly the sort of way a player could take advantage of the rule.

At 3.13 remaining in the 4th quarter if anyone wants to look it up.

25
by Joseph :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:05am

Couple of comments, not replying to anyone in specific:
1. "Push oob defense" would be most useful in the endzone, where you aren't worried about the receiver getting behind you. As pointed out above in multiple comments, getting a DPI/holding penalty carries a significant risk, as it would be 1st down on the 1. In this specific case, TB would have had one untimed down from the 1 to tie the game. On the other hand, it seemed to me (on a grainy NFL.com replay) that Williams ran close to the back line, and Robinson, in fairly tight coverage, was able to "shove" him without much action that would normally garner a flag. We see examples many time where WR's/DB's are in tight coverage before the ball is thrown, that the ref looking at that part of the field tends to let some bumping go because both are either playing the ball or were already so close together that some jostling is inevitable. (Or it may be so "simultaneous" that that ref decides that it wasn't interference, even though a slo-mo replay may show that the DB got there 1/20 of a sec early.)
2. If Williams was aware that he was oob (and he should have been, since he was SO clearly out) he should have either stayed oob, giving up on the play, or have stood still just inside the back line, making himself eligible to catch a tipped ball (which would be the best option). By continuing to try to get open, and make himself a target, he made it possible for TB to lose. Without checking, there may have been someone else for Freeman to try to throw to for a legitimate TD had Williams still been "covered."
3. Re: try to push receiver oob if he catches the ball near the sideline/endline. I would argue that this is only good on a fade-type pattern, where the DB doesn't have much chance to get his head turned to play the ball. However, he sees his man jump for the ball--he must then try to time it right to "help" the receiver NOT get that second foot down. "Punching the ball out" or "yank one hand off of the ball" like Tillman did to Megatron on MNF seems like a better defense to me.

26
by dbostedo :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 2:10pm

All true, except that I think what Robinson did would likely have been called a penalty if Freeman were still in the pocket, assuming a ref actually saw him do it. It was a pretty blatant push, and it wasn't just bumping or mutual between the players.

27
by Joseph :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 4:36pm

Since I didn't see it, I'll cede to your judgment. I still thought, based on the clip I saw, that they were close enough to the back line to let Robinson get away with it easier. For example, I can't see this being done in the middle of the endzone 2 yds past the goal line. Too easy to get called for DPI.

30
by dbostedo :: Thu, 10/25/2012 - 11:28pm

Well sure, if you push someone hard enough to go out of bounds from the middle of the endzone, it's going to be pretty obvious...

Kidding... I know what you mean. I'm just guessing too; Since the ref in the back of the end zone seemed to be close to them, I'm thinking it would have been called. No way to know for sure though.

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