The Seattle Seahawks lost to the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday and on two separate occasions the Saints got away with illegal “pick” plays. Now, I normally don’t like discussing penalties, but after watching the game closely I couldn’t ignore how much these two plays impacted the overall flow of the game.
Before we begin, we need to visit the NFL Rulebook (found here) to see the actual wording of the penalty. According to Rule 8, Section 5, Article 4 under “Other Prohibited Acts by the Offense”:
If an offensive pass interference penalty is enforced, the call results in a replay of down and a loss of 10 yards by the offense.
We’ll start with the more obvious of the two plays at the 12:24 mark in the 4th quarter. The situation was 3rd and Goal on the Seahawks’ 2-yard line. This play allowed Drew Brees to throw an easy touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks.
The play design is called a “rub” concept and the Saints run this on the left side of the formation using (83) Willie Snead in the slot, while (10) Brandin Cooks is on the outside.
The idea of this play design is to use the the slot receiver to create a “natural” pick or rub on the defender. In this case it’s (20) Jeremy Lane. Typically these plays are used against press coverage, but you can also use them against zone defenders in short yardage situations since the defenders are located near the line of scrimmage. Here’s the play in both broadcast and All-22 angles:
Immediately after the snap, Snead accelerates towards Lane who is standing with his heels almost on the goal line. If you want to be technical, he’s roughly on the 1⁄2-yard line or for my math friends out there, he’s 1.5 yards down the field. Snead clearly is not running a route and is simply blocking down the field. This is illegal.
If Snead was creating a natural pick, and that’s the original idea of this play, he would have used his body to create the separation and then still attempted to disengage to run a route. The intent is obvious as it’s a downfield block from the start and he makes no effort to disengage for the pass.
Further, the rule states “prior to the pass being thrown.” At the time of the image above, Drew Brees has not released the football yet but Snead continues his block into the endzone well beyond the 1-yard line. That’s why this is illegal.
DeShawn Shead (35) is the defender lining up opposite of Cooks, but since he and the rest of the defense are in zone, he is not responsible for guarding the receiver. Knowing this, it allows Brees to throw an incredibly easy touchdown pass for the go ahead score.
Later in the 4th quarter, with 3:55 left in the game, New Orleans has a 3rd and 5 from the Seattle’s 44-yard line. The Saints were leading 22-20 at this time, so getting this stop would have given the Seahawks a chance at a game-winning drive.
They run another pick concept, however, after motioning Cooks to the outside.
After the snap, Brees looks to his right and waits for (56) Cliff Avril to clear his throwing lane. He then throws the pass to Cooks while Snead sets up another downfield block. This one is definitely less clear than the first based on the impact of the pick.
My argument for why this is illegal is actually twofold: First, since Brees waits for Avril to clear his throwing lane, Snead is already blocking Lane by the time Brees releases the football in the image above. The official wording of the rule is “prior to the pass thrown”.
My second argument is based on Snead’s path and intended “route”. Snead is clearly two yards past the line of scrimmage and then purposefully works back to Cooks setting up his block by jumping in front of Lane. This is also illegal.
Both of these plays should have resulted in a replay of down and a 10-yard loss by the offense. We can’t say for certain if New Orleans would have scored on the 12-yard line after the first non-called penalty nor can we say if the Saints would have converted on the 3rd and 15 play resulting from the second non-call. The only thing we can say for certain is that it definitely would have been more difficult for the offense.
In the grand scheme of things, the Seahawks should never have been in the situation to be down by five points late in the 4th quarter. I blame a lot of that on offensive ineptitude, but these two plays certainly didn’t give them any more help.
Seattle plays the 4-4 Buffalo Bills next. The Bills started the season with two losses, then went on a four game winning streak lead by running back LeSean McCoy. He is dealing with a hamstring injury currently, but should back for the game versus the Seahawks in CenturyLink Field.
It’ll be interesting to see how they call that game given the emphasis on penalties recently in the national spotlight, as well as playing on Monday Night.