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ICYMI in NFL Week 3: When is a sack legal? Hard to know now

September 24, 2018
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) reacts to his penalty after tackling Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

LANDOVER, Md. (AP) — Sure does seem as if “When is a sack just a sack?” is quickly becoming the NFL’s new “Did that player lower his helmet too much?” or “What, exactly, is a catch?”

It’s a fundamental element of football — how a pass-rusher is allowed to bring a QB down to the ground — and no one really seems to be clear on it at the moment.

Not Clay Matthews, the Packers linebacker who’s been flagged for roughing the passer in each of Green Bay’s three games this season. Not Alex Smith, the Redskins quarterback who was sacked by Matthews with about as straightforward a tackle as can be on Sunday. Not Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who yelled at two officials after the call. Not players on either team or on either side of the ball.

“Unfortunately this league is going in a direction that a lot of people don’t like. I think they’re getting soft. The only thing hard about this league is the fines they levy down on guys like me that play the game hard,” Matthews said after Green Bay’s 31-17 loss at Washington.

“Nine years, I’ve been doing it one way in the NFL, successfully, and now it just seems as if that way doesn’t work anymore. And that’s frustrating,” Matthews said with a huge sigh.

“I don’t run the league office,” he said, “but you’d like to see football be football.”

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 (b) of the NFL rulebook says that “a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw (a passer) down or land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight.”

That rule has been around for years, but the league’s competition committee made it a point of emphasis this season. More than 30 roughing-the-passer penalties were called in this season’s first two weeks alone.

“That was basically my key — that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight,” referee Craig Wrolstad told a pool reporter Sunday.

“But if you’ve got a shoulder into him and then landed on him with most of his body weight off him or released him when he went down, then he would have been OK,” Wrolstad said. “But in my judgment, I ruled that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight there.”

If the 15-yard penalty was assessed correctly in this instance, count McCarthy and Matthews among those who think that rule needs to be rewritten or, at the very least, reinterpreted.

“Somehow,” Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark said, “we’ve got to find a way to grab the quarterback and twirl our body and not land on the quarterback.”

Sounds impossible.

“What do you want the man to do?” said one of Smith’s defensive teammates, Josh Norman. “When I saw it, it was not malicious, ill intent. It was just a nice form tackle.”

Another Redskins defender, safety D.J. Swearinger, sided with Matthews, too.

“They’re making the game less fun,” Swearinger said. “He made a great play. That’s crazy.”

In case you missed it, here are other top topics after the NFL season’s third Sunday:

NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING

No way to know what is going to happen week to week in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills — considered by some the worst team in the league — and rookie QB Josh Allen went on the road as 16½-point underdogs and roughed up Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings 27-6. The Redskins — coming off a 12-point loss to the Colts — thumped Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Detroit Lions went from 0-2 to 26-10 winners over Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots, who have lost by double digits twice in a row. The club that beat the Patriots by 11 last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars, turned in a stinker, a 9-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans, who started Blaine Gabbert.

WATCHU TALKIN’ ’BOUT, WILSON?

The Miami Dolphins are off to a 3-0 start, thanks in part to a unique performance by receiver Albert Wilson in a 28-20 victory over Jon Gruden’s winless Oakland Raiders. Wilson became only the fourth player in NHL history to throw a TD pass of at least 50 yards and catch a TD pass of at least 50 yards in the same game.

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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