With six minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Buffalo Bills’ game against the Green Bay Packers, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was leveled by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on a play where the safety came away with the football. With the game still in reach, a penalty here would have either given Buffalo the ball inside the Packers’ red zone or at the very least backed them up after the turnover and it should have been a penalty.
You can see the play at NFL.com. They list it as a highlight, but it’s exactly the type of play the NFL is trying to legislate out of the game. So why no penalty? Let’s take a look at the statute (we have only included the pertinent sub-headings):
It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.
Players in a defenseless posture are:
2. A receiver attempting to catch a pass who has not had time to clearly become a runner. If the player is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player
3. The intended receiver of a pass in the action during and immediately following an interception or potential interception. If the player is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent, he is no longer a defenseless player. Note: Violations of this provision will be enforced after the interception, and the intercepting team will maintain possession.
Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:
1. forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him
Benjamin didn’t see the safety and was clearly not in a running or bracing position, and as such was in a defenseless position. The third bullet point explicitly mentions that the interception doesn’t eliminate the penalty.
The helmet-to-helmet contact is also clearly mentioned as prohibited. It clearly meets the definition of “prohibited contact”.
Several Packers fans were arguing on Twitter saying it was a “good non-call” because Clinton-Dix was going for the ball and he has every right to it. The second part is true, but the rule above doesn’t say it’s okay to go through a guy’s head to get to the pass. Defenders have rights to the ball but not at the expense of player safety. Intent isn’t what’s being legislated, the act is, and it’s the defender’s job to avoid it:
Note 2: A player who initiates contact against a defenseless opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act. This includes illegal contact that may occur during the process of attempting to dislodge the ball from an opponent. A standard of strict liability applies for any contact against a defenseless opponent, even if the opponent is an airborne player who is returning to the ground or whose body position is otherwise in motion, and irrespective of any acts by the defenseless opponent, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact.
This isn’t to remove blame from quarterback Josh Allen. He didn’t look off the safety and didn’t throw the ball to the sideline area to lead Benjamin away from the hit. He certainly shares in the blame.
Luckily, Benjamin only spent a short time in the Bills’ locker room and cleared concussion protocol before returning to game action.