Cut blocks again under fire in wake of Pouncey injury
Brett Keisel knew it was friendly fire that ended All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey's season eight plays into the opening game. But to Keisel, that's not an excuse.
The Steelers' defensive end called David DeCastro's ill-judged cut-block attempt on the Titans' Sammie Hill, which tore Pouncey's right ACL and MCL, “ridiculous” after Sunday's loss. That reignited the discussion of how the cut block is not only legal in the safety-conscience NFL but also endorsed by many decision-makers, including Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
“I like the rule as it is,” said Tomlin, a member of the eight-person competition committee that decides on rule changes in the offseason.
Other low blocks have been legislated out of late, including all on special teams. Crack-back and peel-back blocks are no longer permitted, but the cut block remains.
Keisel this week remained upset with the legality of the cut block this week in preparation for Monday's game at Cincinnati.
“I am not saying all cut blocks, but when someone is engaged, then I don't feel like it is a safe play,” he said. “Every year guys get hurt. You wonder how many guys have to go down before something happens.”
Texans linebacker Brian Cushing was a cut blocked last season and missed the remainder of the year. The NFL promised to look at the rule in the offseason, but no change was made.
“As far as I am concerned, it is a block that I can do without,” safety Ryan Clark said. “The game wouldn't suffer without it, but it isn't something I see that's going to be taken out of the game anytime soon.”
There's a reason for that.
A rule change requires a three-fourths majority (24 votes) from owners, who rely heavily on coaches' opinions. Because the cut block is an integral part of the outside zone-blocking scheme that's become popular, it's unlikely the rule will be altered.
“It is in the game because owners and the people on the competition committee allow it,” Clark said. “So many teams utilize it as part of their offensive package that it is going to be tough to get a guy from the Houston Texans to vote against having that block in the game.”
The Steelers probably would vote the same way, as they also have moved to a zone-blocking scheme. For years, nose tackle Casey Hampton was a victim of cut-blocking that the Steelers criticized. It is a way to get a run-plugging guy on the ground in order for the running back to have a cut-back lane.
It never went over well with the Steelers, but times have changed.
“If you can't beat them, join them,” guard Ramon Foster said. “One of our points of emphasis is to chop them down. It slows them up. We aren't trying to injury anybody. It's legal. Until they change the rule, we are going to do it right along with them.”
Coincidentally, the only outside zone play the Steelers ran against the Titans resulted in Pouncey's injury.
Retired NFL center Shaun O'Hara, now an NFL Network analyst, called it a freak accident and has no problem with the technique.
“All cut blocks don't end in injury,” O'Hara said. “Defenders realize that it is coming, too. Defensive linemen understand it that it is part of the game. They practice it. It is part of their individual drills.”
That's where the difference in opinion comes in. The league cites that a defender who is engaged with a blocker and is cut low by another lineman no more than one spot removed can anticipate the block, making it legal.
“I don't believe that for one bit,” Keisel said. “It doesn't matter if you anticipate it because if you don't play the guy in front of you, he is going to blow you back. You are engaged with the man in front of you, trying to beat him, and the backside is coming to cut you.”
Ask any Steelers defensive linemen and you will get a similar answer.
Nose tackle Steve McLendon: “In a 3-4 and head up on the center, you can't anticipate that coming because you can't see that coming.”
Defensive end Ziggy Hood: “If you are not paying attention, it can really get you and have a chance of hurting you.”
Cutting began as a key ingredient in Bill Walsh's West Coast scheme during the 49ers' dynasty in 1980s. Mike Shanahan, a former 49ers offensive coordinator, took the technique to Denver, where he won two Super Bowls. Now most NFL teams use some version of it.
Legislating it out of the game isn't likely.
“It would be a drastic change,” O'Hara said. “It could be done, but then what would be next? You can't tackle a running back around the legs?”
Keisel's rebuttal: “Safety is so paramount. I don't know why it is still in the league.”