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The Takeaway, Packers vs. Washington: NFL’s contact rules too difficult to officiate consistently

The NFL’s contact rules don’t only frustrate defenders. Referees admit they cannot consistently and fairly enforce them.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Given the myriad mistakes the Green Bay Packers made during Sunday’s 31-17 loss to Washington, it seems likely that Clay Matthew’s flagged sack of Alex Smith would not have altered the game’s final result. Dropped passes, fumbles, and blown coverages doomed the now 1-1-1 Packers to a disappointing loss that saw them fall behind the Chicago Bears for the NFC North lead. While the game will eventually fade in the background of the season, Matthews’ hit and the ongoing confusion surrounding the NFL’s contact rules will continue to dominate the national discourse.

The penalty, the latest in a league-wide trend of dubious and increasingly frustrating fouls, marks the third time in three games that Matthews has extended possessions for the opposing offense. Like the week before, it remains wholly unclear how the veteran linebacker could have avoided a flag and still made a play.

According to the NFL, Matthews violated the rule against landing on a passer “with all or most of [his] weight.” Without dispute, Matthews applied his weight the quarterback during the play. The linebacker made contact with Smith from the front and the force carried both of them towards the ground, with Matthews disengaging as they hit the turf. By the letter of the law, the officials should have flagged the play.

But against all common sense, the rule ignores the mechanics of football and the basic Newtonian physics. Matthews could not have hit Smith from the front without applying his body weight and, given the manner in which he broke through the offensive line, could not have approached the quarterback from a different direction. Other than not making contact at all, Matthews had no less-intrusive option to sack Smith. In effect, the rule outlaws all contact between defender and quarterback from all but a select few angles.

Even the best rules can become problematic if inconsistently applied, let alone a patently imperfect one like the quarterback contract rules. In the same game, Washington defensive lineman Jonathan Allen grabbed Aaron Rodgers from behind, lifted him off his feet, and drove him into the ground. That play fit the description the league used to justify last week’s roughing penalty against Matthews, with Allen’s hit appearing more egregious given the twist and pull applied to Rodgers and the lineman landing on him with his entire body weight. Yet, inexplicably, the officials didn’t flag the play.

These contradictory results underscore the larger problem. Regardless of whether the NFL’s contact rules make sense to players, coaches, media, or fans, it has become abundantly clear that no officiating crew can consistently and fairly enforce those regulations. The referees understand this fatal flaw and acknowledge as much. When Rodgers asked why Allen’s sack didn’t draw a flag, the official answered that he “couldn’t see through 14 guys.” It doesn’t speak well of a rule that it failed to anticipate the presence of the 20 other players sharing the field.

The NFL should admit its mistake and rework the contact rules to allow reasonable contact like Matthews’ sack. Because that won’t happen in the foreseeable future, the problem will remain the topic du jour across the league and continue to mar the 2018 season.

Familiar O-line problems return

Even under the best possible conditions, the Packers knew their offensive line wouldn’t match the play of previous units. After an injury-filled outing against Washington, their circumstances appear far from ideal.

While the offensive line features several proven veterans, it entered the offseason with a significant void at guard. The Packers never seriously challenged Justin McCray’s claim as the starting right guard, signing only journeyman Byron Bell in free agency and waiting until the sixth round to draft an offensive lineman (Cole Madison, not currently with the club). McCray has yet to repay the team’s faith in him, yielded multiple pressures and sacks in each of the first three games of the season. Now, he faces the prospect of missing time after a shoulder injury cost him the final three drives of Sunday’s game at Washington.

Meanwhile, McCray’s partner on the right side, Bryan Bulaga, also left early after suffering a back injury. Bulaga had only just returned for full contact from a torn ACL late last month, and though separate health issues, the veteran tackle has battled the injury bug throughout his career. Like McCray, it remains unclear when Bulaga will return.

And the Packers don’t have many attractive options if the injuries prove serious. Lucas Patrick replaced McCray initially with Bell coming in for the final two offensive series. Neither has an extensive track record at guard. Perhaps Green Bay could turn to Jahri Evans, the team’s starting right guard most of last season and a potential upgrade over McCray. However, after a long offseason with no football activity, Evans might have already transitioned his body for civilian life. He might no longer have interest in playing, either.

As for right tackle, the Packers replaced Bulaga with third-year man Jason Spriggs on Sunday. Spriggs, as he has for much of his career, struggled in pass protection and drew a false-start penalty. If the team decides Spriggs cannot handle the starting job, it could turn to Bell or, if healthy, McCray, both of whom recorded starts at right tackle within the past two years. Alex Light, the only other tackle on Green Bay’s roster, made the squad as an undrafted free agent from Richmond and almost certainly needs more seasoning before protecting Rodgers.

All of which highlights the Packers’ O-line problems. If McCray and especially Bulaga miss significant time, the offense can expect to suffer dearly.

Aaron Jones needs more opportunities

The Packers had some reasons to limit Aaron Jones’ workload on Sunday. The second-year running back had just returned from a two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and he missed most of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury. Jones also missed multiple games as a rookie with MCL sprains in both knees. At 5-foot-9 and only 208 pounds, he lacks the typical build of an every-down back, perhaps contributing to his multiple absences.

Yet, even with those caveats, Jones simply did not receive enough work on Sunday. Despite leading the team with 42 rushing yards on six carries, his 17 snaps from scrimmage trailed that of Ty Montgomery (20) and Jamaal Williams (30). Certainly, Montgomery and Williams have a place in the offense. The former serves as a valuable receiver out of the backfield while the latter provides superior pass protection. But neither generates yardage on the ground as efficiently as Jones, who has averaged over 5.6 yards per carry over the course of his career.

With the passing game in a slump and the offensive line potentially playing without multiple starters, the Packers need to prioritize Jones immediately. He can’t fix everything wrong with the offense, but he provides the most dangerous threat to opposing defenses of any running back in Green Bay’s arsenal. Better utilization of Jones should put the offense in more favorable situations and move the sticks, keeping Rodgers on the field and helping the unit break out of its funk.