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NFL’s roughing-the-passer rule isn’t changing, but it may be applied differently

Green Bay's Clay Matthews was penalized for this hit Sunday on Redskins quarterback Alex Smith (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Following a series of controversial roughing-the-passer calls this season, there is growing sentiment within the NFL that a new rule aimed at protecting quarterbacks should be applied differently by game officials the remainder of the season.

Multiple people familiar with the inner workings of the NFL competition committee said the language of the rule — which makes it a penalty for defensive players to land with all or most of their body weight on the quarterback — would not be altered this season but the way it is enforced would change.

The new rule has been criticized by players as unduly harsh and unfair to defenders. The controversy has revolved around, in particular, two calls against Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.

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In both cases, the league office supported the roughing-the-passer calls made by officials against Matthews. But that does not necessarily mean the calls were consistent with how the league wants to see the roughing-the-passer rule enforced, according to people with knowledge of the league’s thinking.

A person close to the rules process said no formal instructions to the on-field officials are likely to be made but it is expected that the roughing-the-passer rule will be called differently, with the shift in emphasis becoming clear through officiating videos distributed by the league.

“I think you’ll see a change going forward,” that person said.

No significant changes to the language of the roughing-the-passer rule are expected to be made during the 2018 season. “I’m not sure we can do anything this year,” one person with knowledge of the competition committee’s deliberations said.

The particularly problematic call against Matthews, in the view of some connected with the process, was the roughing-the-passer penalty he received for a hit on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins during a Sept. 16 game in Green Bay. Matthews hit Cousins after the quarterback released the football on a throw late in the game. Matthews was penalized for, the league said at the time, reaching around and lifting Cousins by the back of the leg before taking him to the ground.

The call negated what would have been a game-clinching interception for the Packers. Instead, the Vikings drove to a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion late in regulation. The game finished in a 29-29 tie after a scoreless overtime.

This past Sunday, Matthews was penalized for a hit on Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith. Referee Craig Wrolstad said, with the league office’s subsequent backing, that Matthews’s hit on Smith violated this season’s directive by the competition committee prohibiting a defender from landing on a quarterback with most or all of his body weight.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was injured on such a hit last season. That was one of a number of high-profile injuries last season to star quarterbacks, including the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz and the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson. Roughing-the-passer penalties have been up sharply in the early stages of this season.

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Matthews, other NFL players and many outside observers have been sharply critical of the calls against Matthews, saying he was being penalized for what amounted to textbook tackles at a time when defenders are prohibited from hitting quarterbacks in the head or below the knee.

“What you saw there was a football play,” Matthews said in the visitors' locker room at FedEx Field following Sunday’s game. “I beat my man. I’m right in front of the quarterback. I get my head to the side. I wrap him up. . . . He gave himself up. I land on him. I pull my hands out. . . . I like the spirit of the rule. I just think we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Matthews said Sunday the league is getting soft.

“I don’t run the league office,” he said. “But you’d like to see football be football. Football has hard hits. It’s a physical game. It’s not for the faint of heart. We get after one another. . . . It’s going in the wrong direction.”

Rodgers said Sunday: “They were worried in the preseason, a lot of people, about the targeting-type penalties that were going to get called. I haven’t really seen any of those. Obviously the one that’s been called a lot the first few weeks is the roughing the passer. So the league will, I’m sure, look at those plays, and probably double down.”

Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said Monday that Sunday’s penalty against Matthews was “a bad call” involving a “horrible rule” that “should be taken out.”

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Swearinger continued: “The game happens too fast. It’s a grown man’s game. It’s not a referee’s game. You’ve got to know the game. You’ve got to be able to play the game to be able to put rules out. The game happens too fast. . . . I don’t know what you’d ask Clay to do. It’s not football.”

During the preseason, competition committee members discussed the league’s new helmet rule amid a controversy over how the new rule was being enforced. The committee made no significant changes to the rule, which makes it a penalty for a player to lower his head and use his helmet to deliver a hit, but the league issued a clarification saying that inadvertent or incidental contact should not result in a penalty.

The number of calls made under the new rule were curbed significantly from that point on. During the regular season, the focus has shifted to the manner in which roughing the passer is being enforced.

Kareem Copeland contributed to this report.