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NFL addresses roughing the passer, Steelers react

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TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 24: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is sacked by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul #90 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter of a game on September 24, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Vinny Curry (97) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) sack Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the first half Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in Tampa, Fla.

Even Mike Tomlin said Monday night’s Pittsburgh Steelers win “probably wasn’t a fun game to watch.” The coach was referring to the abundance of penalties in total, but the four roughing-the-passer calls — all in the first half — got the most attention.

Including, apparently, the NFL’s.

The league’s competition committee — of which Tomlin is a member — met via conference call Wednesday evening and discussed roughing-the-passer rules, according to an NFL statement released Thursday.

That the league took the atypical step of releasing the statement perhaps shows how much pushback it was getting regarding roughing-the-passer flags (34 through three weeks).

It culminated with the record-tying four in front of a national television audience Monday night. The ESPN announcing crew questioned the rules, specifically the emphasis this season on defenders needing to avoid applying their body weight onto the passer.

While the league Thursday said “there would be no rule changes,” it said the “body-weight provision” is being enforced differently this season than it has since it was first introduced in 1995.

The league made the body-weight provision an officiating point of emphasis this spring. That will continue, but the NFL statement said, “(to) ensure consistency in officiating the rule, the committee clarified techniques that constitute a foul,” and that video feedback will “be provided throughout the season to coaches, players and officials illustrating clear examples of permissible and impermissible contact on the quarterback.”

The video ( http://media02.nfl.info/NFL/Officiating/2018/Cerminaro/Roughing%20the%20Passer%2009_27_18.mp4 ) had four examples of each.

One of the impermissible hits was Kansas City’s Dee Ford on the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger two weeks ago at Heinz Field. Although Ford was not penalized, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said it should have been because “most, if not all, of the defender’s body weight is on the passer as they go to the ground.”

The Steelers’ leader in pass-rush snaps, Bud Dupree, expressed exasperation with how defenders are supposed to pursue a quarterback.

“If you hit somebody hard enough (regardless of the technique), they are going to give you a roughing the passer,” Dupree said.

“I don’t know. Maybe we should tackle (quarterbacks) sideways.”

Although Steelers defensive captain and 2017 sack leader Cameron Heyward noted the “gray area” of the rule, he expressed acceptance of it.

“I can’t get frustrated about it. I have to play football,” Heyward said.

“I was always taught to wrap up, get your shoulder in there and you’ll be able to stay clean,” he added moments later. “(But) you’re almost better either going for the ball or holding him up and letting them blow the play dead. Which is crazy to me. But this is 2018.”

The team’s sack leader, T.J. Watt, said defensive players can’t practice legal technique because quarterbacks are off-limits in practice. He suggested the only recourse is to try for fumble as the priority in pursuing a quarterback.

“When it comes to trying get a guy down, it’s hard to kind of compartmentalize, ‘Oh, I can’t hit him here,’ ” Watt said.

The body-weight point of emphasis likely traces back to Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone suffered last season from a sack by Minnesota’s Anthony Barr. The play was one of the four referenced by Riveron as deserving a penalty. But Rodgers has come out against some of the flags, telling reporters earlier this month, “It’s still a collision sport, and those to me are not penalties.”

Rodgers, though, seems in the minority among offensive players. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is one of Roethlisberger’s best friends on the team, and it’s Pouncey’s job to protect him. Pouncey said the rule emphasis is “for the better.”

“Nobody complained about it at first,” Pouncey said of the point-of-emphasis announcement. “And now everybody is upset with it.”

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here .

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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