Several of you have forwarded to us an intriguing clip from early in the fourth quarter of the division-round game between the Steelers and Ravens. And while we’re not prepared to label the maneuver depicted therein as “cheating,” it’s definitely worth pointing out the tactic employed, in the hopes that the officials will be on the lookout for such behavior in the future.
After a third-down pass from Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Antonio Brown moved the ball inside the 15, the officials spotted the ball on the fourteen, with most of the ball behind the stripe on the hash mark. (It actually looked to be a bad spot; Brown seemed to get beyond the 14 when he fell.)
Enter Maurkice Pouncey. As the Steelers lined up for fourth down, Pouncey placed his hand on the ball and moved it noticeably forward, to the other side of the 14. Then, Ravens coach John Harbaugh disrupted the process, apparently because he believed the officials had given the Steelers a first down, and because Harbaugh was considering challenging it. (The more likely reality is that Harbaugh was feigning confusion so that his defense would get a look at the offensive alignment, the time-honored “time out without calling a time out” maneuver.)
Referee Jeff Triplette announced there would be no challenge to the spot because the officials had not given the Steelers a first down, which should have been obvious from the fact that the chains had not, you know, moved. A shot of the ball then showed it resting at the spot to which Pouncey had moved it before Harbaugh bought time for his defense, with most of it now on the other side of the 14-yard stripe.
Though the clip doesn’t reveal Pouncey moving it a second time (the producer cut to a shot of Roethlisberger moving the offense quickly toward the line), the next image from the traditional in-game sideline camera shows the ball entirely between the 14 and 13.
The officials then intervene, forcing the Steelers to wait to snap the ball until the Ravens have a chance to line up.
And then Pouncey puts his hand on the ball and moves it again.
In the end, fourth and one became fourth and inches, thanks to what amounted to three separate movements of the ball by Pouncey. Roethlisberger then easily converted the first down on a different kind of “sneak”.
We don’t fault Pouncey for it. We doubt that he’s the first guy to do it. Moreover, the Steelers ultimately were forced to settle for a field goal, so the only harm was the consumption of nearly two minutes in the very early portion of the final quarter.
In our view, the officials are the ones who deserve the blame here. They need to be aware of the phenomenon of centers trying to take advantage of these hidden inches, especially when his team is going for it on fourth and short.
Remember, only the best officiating crews work in the postseason. Perhaps a non-playoff crew would have allowed Pouncey to pick the ball up and carry it beyond the orange stick.