Steelers get summer lesson on NFL rule changes, reviewable pass interference
NFL officials, led by second-year referee Shawn Smith, made their annual visit Friday to Saint Vincent to brief the Pittsburgh Steelers on the newest rules changes and points of emphasis.
Officials have been charged with cracking down on blind-side blocks, enforcing holds that occur on the backside of running plays and flagging non-player personnel for running onto the field and celebrating touchdowns.
The change that appears to be the most controversial is one that will be determined in the instant replay booth and not by the men on the field.
For the first time, pass interference is reviewable under instant replay — regardless of whether a flag was thrown — and can be subject to a coach’s challenge before the two-minute warning of each half. In the final two minutes, the replay official can initiate a review of any pass play to determine whether offensive or defensive interference occurred.
The rule change was initiated after the controversial non-call near the end of the NFC championship game that would have extended a potential game-winning drive by the New Orleans Saints, who lost in overtime to the Los Angeles Rams.
Making pass interference reviewable — and the groundwork for enforcement — generated much debating heading into the NFL annual meeting when ownership approved the change. For instance, the replay official has the power to not only overturn a defensive pass interference call, he can rule in favor of offensive pass interference — and vice versa.
“We want clarity on how they are going to call it,” said Teryl Austin, the Steelers senior defensive assistant who coaches the secondary. “We want to have some clarity so we can teach our guys and coach our guys to stay out of those situations.”
Before meeting with the Steelers, Smith and his crew went over the changes with the media, showing a 10-minute video that outlined the new rules.
Smith admitted to not witnessing the first implementation of the reviewable pass interference rule, which happened Thursday at the Hall of Fame Game. The replay official upheld a penalty on Denver Broncos cornerback Linden Stephens after Broncos coach Vic Fangio threw a challenge flag.
“What has been instructed is there has to be clear and obvious visual evidence. That is what the replay officials will be looking for,” Smith said. “It has to significantly hinder the player, whether it’s the offensive or defensive guy.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is part of the NFL’s Competition Committee, was against expanding instant replay to include pass interference, a view shared by team president Art Rooney II. They cited a drag on the pace of play for games that already exceed three hours in length.
“We try to keep the replays within a reasonable time frame,” Smith said. “We try to get the decisions made. If time is of the essence or requires us to take more time, we’re going to take the time that we need to get it right. We want to make sure we have all the views from the TV truck. If we can get it done in a reasonable time, we will do it.”
Smith said “Hail Mary” passes, which often lead to offensive and defensive players jostling for position while the ball is in the air, also are subject to replay review.
“They’ll be treated the same way,” he said. “There are no special rules or exceptions.”
Austin said the easiest ways for Steelers defensive backs not to be subject to pass-interference reviews is simply by displaying sound technique.
“What I’m enforcing with the players is I want them to play as clean as possible so we don’t have to worry about all these rules,” he said. “That’s the goal: To play as clean as possible and be really good with our feet and our eyes and our hands so we’re not grabbing.”
Among the other rules changes:
• What constitutes a blind-side block was expanded and includes “forcible” contact with the helmet, forearm and shoulders.
• The alignment for kicking and receiving teams on kickoffs, implemented last season, were made permanent.
• Penalties that occur on touchdowns have the option to be enforced on the extra-point or 2-point conversion try instead of the ensuing kickoff.
• Holding calls on the “backside” of runs plays will be flagged more frequently.
“It was a foul, but it was a foul that typically wasn’t called,” Smith said. “It’s something they want taken out of the game.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .