By Michael Cunningham
Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons, serves on the NFL’s competition committee which is, in part, responsible for rule changes and clarifications. In a regular feature as part of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s football coverage, McKay will break down a rule or issue facing the league each week.
This week: An exception to the prohibition against “pick plays” by wide receivers.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White’s block of Philadelphia cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha helped spring teammate Julio Jones for a 37-yard reception, but their celebration was cut short by the sight of a dreaded penalty flag on the field.
Head linesman Wayne Mackie had called White for pass interference. TV replays showed White had indeed engaged Asomugha before quarterback Matt Ryan delivered the pass.
But, after the officials huddled for a discussion, the flag was picked up. The play stood, and the Falcons added another field goal en route to the 30-17 victory on Oct. 28.
It turns out that not all pick plays are illegal. The relevant section of the NFL rulebook states that an offensive player is allowed to block a defender within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage before the pass is released and also can drive the opponent downfield if he maintains contact.
Further, the rules state: “If an offensive player moves beyond the line scrimmage while legally blocking an opponent or being blocked by an opponent, an eligible offensive player may catch a pass between them and the line of scrimmage.”
When the officials huddled to discuss White’s play, they likely were trying to determine if White first made contact with Asomugha within 1 yard of the line. White immediately reached out and blocked Asomugha after the ball was snapped.
McKay said the 1-yard buffer where offensive players can block defenders is known as the “expanded neutral zone.”
“That gets to the idea that, on a play like that, wide receivers are allowed to block for other eligible receivers catching the ball,” he said. “They just can’t initiate contact beyond that one yard.”
The play requires precise timing because the blocking receiver must quickly engage his defender, lest the contact happen farther than 1 yard from the line of scrimmage.
“That play is practiced a lot; receiver coaches teach that a lot,” McKay said.
The rule also applies to ineligible receivers. They are allowed to drive block a defender down field on a pass play before the ball is thrown as long as contact is initiated within 1 yard of the line and maintained. If contact is broken, the offensive player must remain stationary until the ball is thrown.
McKay noted that NCAA rules allow ineligible receivers down field before the ball is thrown on passes behind the line of scrimmage.
“That’s why they run a lot more screens,” he said.
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