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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Steve Smith Sr.'s Positioning: a Frame-by-Frame study

What IS Offensive Pass Interference?

That's the question in the minds of many a Ravens fan this day.  After that rare call was applied to Steve Smith Sr. in what could have been a blog-inspiring, game-winning touchdown catch, lines were drawn and sides were taken.  Was this a proper call?  Was this a bogus call?  Let's take a look at it.

People have reported that Steve Smith, Sr.'s calm response to this happenstance is proof that he agreed with, or at least understood, the call.  Yet, he said nothing of the sort.  If we are inserting opinion, it is mine that Smith was simply trying to handle the call in a greater context and not allow for himself to become out of control with anger or frustration.

And while it is clear that Smith reached for the Cincinnati Safety, George Iloka, I would even concede that he gave a little shove, was his intention to get Iloka away from him, which becomes his right if illegally touched?  Or was he simply trying to gain an advantage to play the ball?

First, the NFL Rule Digest textbook definition:

Highlighted is the relevant aspect of the rule.  Did Iloka extend his arm across the body of Smith in an effort to impede him?  Did Steve Smith initiate this contact, as in item (G)?  Pictures seem to tell the story:

 Here, the ball is on it's way down and both of the players are aiming for it.  However, as we will see later, Smith already has the ball in his sight, and Iloka is trying to locate it.  I'd like to also point out the side judge, at the bottom of the screen towards the 30 yard line, who is following the action.
As we skip forward some frames, the referee is still following, and the crucial contact has already happened.  The ref is still watching at :39.

Here, Smith catches the ball.  It's still in the 39th second left.  Ref, a step more, no appearance to reach for his flag.

Down to :38, Iloka is on his back, and still no move from the official to throw the flag.  I realize this is bang-bang, but the referee should be confident enough to have already initated reaching for his flag here.

Smith begins making football moves here, Iloka is reaching for him from the prone position, as if he is paralyzed or something (it seems the instinct here would be to GET UP!), and the ref could be reaching here.  If this were true, it would be semi-acceptable to me that he really believed he saw offensive pass interference.  But there seems to exist evidence, as the ref goes off the visible portion of the screen, that he had not pulled that flag .....

As Smith spins at :37, Iloka is clearly in appeal mode, not having yet seen a flag.  His hands are forward in the "pass interference" signal formation.  We will not have an exact visual of the referee until the NFL releases the coaches film for this game.

....And here comes the outright appeal.  Iloka seems to be looking at the side judge at this point, asking for a call.  Since he is asking, it falls to reason that there was no flag thrown yet.  That is in the realm of possibility, I am not saying it is the exact truth.  

Here we have another beat, as Smith gets his bearings, where Iloka is reaching for the sidelines in appeal.  He still has not seen a flag.  In my opinion, the flag should have been out by now.  It is also possible that the flag is out, but he is wanting the call to be his.  Yet, how often do you see guilty defenders erroneously applauding a flag thrown, with hopes of persuading the ref's meaning of the citation?  Afterwards, they act shocked that the call is going against them.  We see this charade every single Sunday.  If this is the case, Iloka is not waiting for the call, he is waiting for the flag itself, because he is going to hard sell the call, the way, he hard-sold the fall.

At :36, Iloka begins clapping.  I believe this is because the flag has been thrown.  Another angle, from, shows the ref throwing the flag at a moment that seems to match the first :36 slide above--somewhat late.

Whereas I do not expect the referee to have lightning fast reflexes, I expect them to be decisive, especially about such a crucial call.  This looked like the referee made the call as an afterthought.

Now, let's look at some close-up shots of Smith and Iloka.
The incredible constant here is how Smith's eyes remain on the ball the entire time.  Here, he is free and tracking.

This is a telling frame.  Iloka comes into the picture, back to the ball and not looking for it, hand outstretched to stop Steve Smith, Sr.  He does have time to look, but the initial entry is that of a beaten defender resorting to tactics to stop from being burned.

(Before I comment, note the security woman in the red shirt.  Can she look more uniterested?!  Hahaha! She's not tracking the play, what is she looking at?!)
Smith is still tracking the ball and Iloka makes a grabbing motion at his chest.  Notice that Smith's gloves are OPEN and Iloka's gloves are CLOSED.  The message being, Smith wants the ball, Iloka wants Smith.  Fair to note that Iloka is turning his head back, here.

They are both tracking.  Hard to tell whether Iloka has spotted the ball just yet.  Again, the hands tell the story--Smith's gloves are WIDE OPEN, Iloka's now seem to have a CLOSED GRAB.  Admittedly, we cannot really see the off hands, but that blur near Iloka's bicep appears to be another one of Smith's open hands.

Smith's gloves are STILL open!!  Iloka has released his early grab and still is causing static with his hands, which is illegal.

Smith's hand now is making contact with Iloka's jersey, perhaps a grab of sorts.  Or the beginning of a grab.  Iloka's off hand is covering Smith's chest and blocking Smith's off hand.  This, too, is illegal.  Smith has the right to get his hands free.

Now, it is true that Smith has retaliated with some grab action here.  But as you see, his off hand is still being blocked by Iloka.  And, his eyes remain on the ball.  It appears that he is simply fighting to free up his hands, that this is the impulse, to get the player off of him so that he can catch.  This is underscored by the fact that Iloka was 'beat' in his positioning at first, and reached for Smith FIRST.

Say to yourself, "Get off me [sic]!" when you look at this slide.  Smith's arms are fully extended and he is about to swing back around, arms freed, to try and catch the ball.  Again, in the context of fighting for the right to freely catch the ball, does this look like a clear infraction?  Also, does Iloka look like he has been thrown?

Again, here, as Smith has successfully fought off Iloka's grab and is about to turn, both sets of hands are free from contact.  Look closely at Iloka's eyes: does he even see the ball?  Smith seems to be looking elsewhere.  And we established that he was tracking the ball from point A.

Smith begins his torso pivot towards the descending ball.  The Sheriff's deputy turns to see the play. Iloka looks like his body is in shock.  Again, though, does he look like he has been thrown down?  Would he not be losing height at this point, if Smith's contact had caused him to fall?

Is it possible that Iloka simply doesn't play jump balls well?  What is he reaching for here?  It appears that he is reaching for Smith again.  Smith is beginning to form a cradle to catch the ball.

Now Iloka begins his descent.  He reaches for Smith again.  In this series of pictures, he simply looks like he doesn't have a lot of body control in a crucial moment, that he was wrought with indecision, and that his initial take on the matter was to illegally obstruct Steve Smith, Sr.
Final slide: Smith welcomes the ball as the falling Iloka reaches in futility.

In the aftermath of this play, the feel that I got was, "There is no way Baltimore will be allowed to do that."  Take that for what it is worth, this is simply the feeling I, persponally, got while watching this play.  But in dissecting this catch, it appears that 1)The referee was not positive about the call, rather, reactive to a pleading Bengal; and 2)Iloka had beaten body language and was not exercising a right to the ball but rather, trying to obstruct Smith from getting it--which is illegal.

Going back to the definition of the rule, it says that reaching across a player and stopping him from attempting to receive a pass is illegal "regardless of whether the player committing such act is playing the ball."  Iloka's initial reach for Smith should have informed the side judge that he was playing Smith, not the ball, and attempting to alter the play illegally.

Therefore, the result should have been "NO CALL."  Touchdown Ravens.

Do you agree?  Post your opinion below or in the Baltimore Sun's Ravens forum.