The NFL defended its decision Sunday night not to issue a penalty on the key play of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 28-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, citing what it viewed as the correct judgment of referee Clete Blakeman's crew.
The Steelers won the game on a 31-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown with 10 seconds remaining. Brown had an open lane down the middle of the field in part because Steelers receiver Justin Hunter blocked Bengals defensive back Tony McRae beyond one yard past the line of scrimmage. Under NFL rules, this type of contact is typically considered offensive pass interference and carries a 10-yard penalty and a replay of the down.
But in a video released on Twitter, league senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said Blakeman did not need to penalize Hunter because McRae initiated the contact.
"The contact is initiated by the defender," Riveron said, "and therefore the receiver is not responsible for this contact."
NFL rule 8, Section 5, Article 4 states: "Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference."
The passage does not specifically reference an exception for instances when the defender initiates contact. An NFL spokesman did not immediately respond when asked for a rule corresponding to Riveron's assertion.
Retired NFL referee Terry McAulay, now with NBC, tweeted that the play should have resulted in a penalty.
My thoughts on Pit/Cin TD: The defender is sliding over to cover AB and puts his hands up to protect himself from contact. The offensive player squares up and engages/blocks the defender. Contact clearly occurs more than a yard beyond the line. This should be a foul.— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) October 15, 2018
Relatively speaking, offensive pass interference is not a frequently called penalty, even as current NFL offenses increasingly utilize "pick" plays designed to block defenders in coverage. Entering Week 6, there had been 33 flags for offensive pass interference, compared to 74 for defensive pass interference.