Judging by the Bucs’ relationship with referees the past two seasons, it was surprising not to see a yellow flag extend Atlanta’s overtime drive last week.
The game ended with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan dropping back and delivering a pass under pressure while being contacted by Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The way McCoy went at Ryan, however, put him at risk of drawing a roughing the passer penalty for targeting the quarterback too low.
Sunday’s officiating crew just hit Atlanta with the same call one drive prior as Tampa Bay was beginning its 15-play drive to open overtime. Falcons outside linebacker O’Brien Schofield got through Bucs right tackle Gosder Cherilus and right guard Ali Marpet and dove at quarterback Jameis Winston, hitting him below the waist.
McCoy’s similar play came as he was beating a double-team by Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews and left guard Andy Levitre. With a knee already to the turf, McCoy lunged at Ryan as a last-ditch effort to disrupt the pass.
“ he doesn’t get the ball off because we need the win,” McCoy said Thursday of the game’s final play. “I was falling. I was splitting a double and I got knocked over, which is why I went low. Initially I wanted to stay high but sometimes you fall and you’ve just got to crawl and get there.”
No call was made and Tampa Bay sealed its third victory of the season. When asked of the play, defensive coordinator Leslie Frasier said that it was pushing the limit in terms of risking a costly penalty that the Bucs – and McCoy – have been called for in the past.
“It’s definitely an emphasis,” Frasier said about stressing to pass rushers where not to contact quarterbacks. “We had it happen to us against Washington and it was actually Gerald that it was called against. So we are emphasizing it. We know that we need to stay high on the quarterback and not tackle him low. We don’t want any personal fouls. We saw what the result of those can be.”
McCoy’s flag in Washington came during the third quarter on a play that tacked on seven more yards to quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 38-yard connection with Andre Roberts.
The league continues to protect quarterbacks from taking contact in a variety of fashions and low hits became a hot topic this preseason when Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs dove at Philadelphia quarterback Sam Bradford.
Suggs was flagged on that play and NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino responded to the debate two days later during an NFL Network interview by clarifying the league’s rule. In short, quarterbacks can be hit at the knees or lower when they’ve become a runner, but not when they’ve established themselves as a passer or don’t have the football.