That memorable goal-line collision late in Thursday night’s game has brought into a focus a safety rule that, in this instance, came into play only after the ball carrier had absorbed a brutal blow to the head.
Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who generated 136 total yards from scrimmage on 23 touches, was touched as violently as any football player ever can be as he tried to score the potential game-tying touchdown. Caught in a Malachi Crunch of Ravens, Bell’s helmet came off an instant before he crossed he crossed the plane with the ball for what would have been his second score of the night.
Replay review reversed the call, because Bell’s helmet was off before the ball kissed the front of the white line that borders the end zone.
The rule is as simple as it is unyielding. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 states, “An official shall declare the ball dead and the down ended,” followed by 18 specific instances of “when.”
At part (r) — the 18th and final “when” — the rule says “when a runner’s helmet comes completely off.”
A safety provision adopted several year back, it’s as black-and-white as a rule can get. Helmet off? Play over. Period.
It doesn’t matter where the player is. Helmet off receives the same treatment as knee down.
And so it was easy for referee Clete Blakeman (who has had an eventful 10 days) to look at the video and determine that, when Bell’s helmet was “completely off,” the ball wasn’t yet touching the goal line.
But something seems unfair and unnatural about the result. Though not airborne, Bell was lunging forward but not yet down. The rules, however, say he was down because his helmet came off.
Moving forward, this specific situation should prompt the NFL to consider modifying the rule to include the phrase “unless the player is in the process of going to the ground.” Indeed, if a player’s helmet comes off while he is going to the ground, no one is going to stop what they’re doing because a player’s helmet has come off. The action will continue until the guy is down; killing the play does nothing to help protect him at that point.
While the officials got the “helmet off” portion of the play right under the current rules, it appears that Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith may have gotten away with an illegal ramming of the crown of the helmet on Bell. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw also apparently attempted to ram Bell with the crown of Upshaw’s helmet from the other direction, but Upshaw ultimately delivered only a glancing blow.
Lost in the outcome of the play is the fact that it almost didn’t happen at all. With Bell lined up behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and anticipating the snap, Bell started to lean forward and nearly lost his balance, which would have drawn an illegal procedure penalty and killed the entire play before it happened.
Based on how Bell and Smith possibly are feeling today, maybe they wouldn’t have minded that alternative outcome.