Heyward on How to Sack QB: Hug Very Tightly

Uncertainty continues with NFL's rule enforcements

Josh Rowntree
September 27, 2018 - 1:54 pm

A national audience witnessed the growing absurdity of the NFL’s enforcement of its roughing the passer rules Monday night when the Steelers took down Tampa. And now players, coaches, fans and more are reacting. 

On four occasions in the first half Monday, defensive players were called for roughing the passer. Two on the Steelers, two on the Bucs. 

So the question becomes, how exactly can you hit a quarterback without a flag being thrown?

“Hug very tightly,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward joked. “But maybe that might get ran away with something else. I don’t really know. I thought it was if you were able to roll and you land on the ground first, then roll them over, that you would still be good. 

Heyward’s counterpart on Pittsburgh’s defensive line, Stephon Tuitt, was one of the players called for roughing the passer. Replay showed Tuitt landing on his left knee as he took Tampa quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to the ground.

Monday night’s game saw 22 accepted penalties for 235 yards. 60 of the penalty yards came via controversial quarterback takedowns. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed to indicate his frustration with the penalties.

“As somebody who appreciates the game and understands we’re in the sports entertainment business, it is worrisome from the fan perspective,” he said during his Tuesday press conference. “I do worry about what it’s like to watch that game at home with penalties being administered at the rate that they were.”

With the roughing the passer penalties specifically, it seems the consensus is that the NFL is making it too difficult for large players to play at full speed, for fear the may be flagged.

“You’ve just got to be smart,” Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. “I wish you could say that you could practice it, but you can’t really practice it, because we can’t, obviously, touch quarterbacks here and you can’t provide a great look of it. 

“I’m always conscious of the ball first, so I try to go for the ball. When it comes to just trying to get a guy down, it’s hard to compartmentalize like ‘oh, I can’t ht him here or there.’”

On Thursday, the NFL released a statement that there would be no changes to the rule.

The Steelers, which are the NFL’s most penalized team this year by a wide margin, will again be in primetime this week, hosting AFC North rival Baltimore. Steelers-Ravens is a rivalry built on big hits and rough play, with two large quarterbacks at the center.

“Ben [Roethlisberger>, [Joe> Flacco, these guys are big,” Heyward said. “You’ve got to put your weight on them if you’re going to sack them. I’m sorry for the smaller quarterbacks, but there are some damn good, big quarterbacks that you’ve got to put full body weight on them to get down. 

“That’s just the name of the game. You have to be somewhat physical if they’re going to pass the ball. Because, if you don’t, they might be able to run the ball or continue to throw the ball. 

“You’re not going to say ‘don’t put all your weight on the running back’ or you’re going to get ran over. I think we just have to be cognoscente of that.”

Watt, however, believes facing a larger quarterback could cut down on the penalties.

“It’s nice when it’s bigger guys though, because you can’t always launch up to his helmet or anything,” he said. “You’ve just got to make sure you don’t go low on a taller guy. But I like going up against a taller guy because the strike zone is a little bigger for us. 

On top of the lack of clarity for how players can attack a quarterback, it also appears to be a challenge for officials. Replay is not an option and, while it is still early in the season, overzealous or overwhelmed officials could cost a team a meaningful game with an unnecessary penalty. 

“There’s just not a clear definition, a detailed definition, of what’s going on,” Heyward added. “We’ve got to get better at that.”