The Elephant in the Locker Room: A Much, Much Closer Look at the Illegal Shift

be-back-smBy Greg Wright

I really do think the Seahawks have found their groove, and Thomas Rawls is for real. And it’s a really, really good time for Seattle to be hitting its offensive stride, because Pittsburgh’s passing attack is going to be a huge challenge for what is now Seattle’s weak spot, the corners and nickel.

Still, I think it’s also finally time for a breakout performance by the Legion and Co. Welcome back, Jeremy Lane?

That’s what I wrote last week. Almost prescient, eh? Each team scored almost exactly 10 more points than I expected, but the storyline played itself out almost perfectly.

Which is why I really don’t want to spend any time dissecting the Hawks’ performance or coaching this week. For me, it’s enough to pick off a red-hot Roethlisberger 4 times (plus Lane’s pick off Jones) and escape with a shoot-out win.

What I can complain about, though, and complain about a lot as a former offensive lineman, is how Pittsburgh got away with an illegal shift on 30 or more different pass plays in that game.

Officiating? Pfft.

Mind you, I was miffed at this during the game, but didn’t have the tools at my disposal to verify the cause of my disgruntlement. But when, the following day, I saw the following press photo taken during the game it kind of set me off.


Dean Rutz of the Seattle Times took this photo, and I’m reprinting it here for journalistic purposes. Rutz chose to focus on the banner in the background, but he captured the thing I’m writing about perfectly.

And what is that?

On almost every offensive snap (and I use that term deliberately), left guard Ramon Foster will get in his stance. Then, after Roethlisberger gets a chance to review the defensive alignment, he’ll change the cadence, snap count, or protection–I’m really not sure what he’s doing, and probably the defense isn’t either–and while he does that, Foster will rise up out of his stance and turn to listen to Roethlisberger! On almost every play.

Rutz’s photo captures this to a tee. You can see Roethlisberger talking directly to Foster, and Foster’s torso is turned completely around to see Roethlisberg’s lips.

So far, all of this is perfectly legal.

What happens next, and consistently so, is not.

Foster will return to his stance… and then the center will snap the ball.

Sometimes as little as 2 tenths of a second later.

That’s called an illegal shift, and it should be flagged.

Every stinking time.

According to the NFL rule book (and it has been this way for time immemorial), “The offensive team is permitted to shift and have two or more players in motion multiple times before the snap. However, after the last shift, all players must come to a complete stop and be in a set position simultaneously for at least one second.”

Come to a complete stop, and be in a set position for at least one second.

Can’t be much clearer than that.

I was so confident that the Steelers were consistently breaking this rule, I knew that I would be able to do a random sample of game footage and prove my point with only one play. So I went to my handy-dandy GamePass account and dialed up the Steelers’ game from last week. Completely randomly, I started replay 60 minutes in to the broadcast. It happened to be just before halftime, and the Steelers had the ball.

Here’s the first screen shot, and you can see that the Steelers are in their initial set with the play clock at 11 seconds.


At 9 seconds on the play clock, Foster and Roethlisberger are doing their usual thing, and Foster is turned back to face the QB.


At 6 seconds, Foster gets back in his set.


With the play clock still showing 6 seconds, the ball is in play.


But wait, you might say. It’s possible that Foster was still set for a full second and the play clock just happens to still show 6 at the end of that second. After all, the secondary play clock display, down by the down-and-distance display at the bottom of the screen, moves from 07 to 06 in those last two screen shots.

But no, I say.

Because I have the trusty stopwatch I stole from Quentin Rapp’s Physics lab in high school nearly 40 years ago. (Yes, I have been known to cheat, too.)

The time between Foster being set and the snap, on this particular play, was 6/10 of a second.

On the following snap, it was an unbelievable 2/10 of a second. That’s right, 0.2 seconds!

The outcome of both plays? Completed passes for long gains.

Two plays, among dozens, that should have resulted in five-yard penalties for Pittsburgh.

And you think the officials messed up big time in Super Bowl XL. Huh. The Steelers got away with this nonsense at the Clink.

What’s the significance? you might ask.

First, the rule is in place to allow defenses to reset themselves after the offense shifts.

Second, if the play clock is winding down (as it did more than once in last week’s game) and the offense must be set for at least a full second before snapping the ball, the play clock may expire before the ball can be legally snapped. That’s pretty significant.

Third, if you’re in your two-minute drill (as the Steelers were in that sequence above), saving half a second or more on six different plays can potentially give you three or four more seconds on the game clock. And anybody who says that’s insignificant doesn’t understand the game.

Finally, it’s just the rules.

Why can’t the Steelers play by them, and why can’t the officials enforce them? This is all obvious during live play. It’s not some dicey subjective call like “What’s a catch?” It’s empirical. Either they’re set for a second–“one-onethousand”–or they’re not. School kids learn what a second is on the playground by the time they’re six years old.

I’m pretty sure what Mike Tomlin’s response would be. “I don’t pay attention to that. That’s someone else’s job.”

Yep. If you can ignore concussion protocol, you can deliberately obstruct punt returners, and you can surely ignore rules about illegal shifts.

Just what the hell does Tomlin actually pay attention to, I wonder? His implausible deniability act is getting really, really old.


It’s not encouraging, when facing a road game against Adrian Peterson, to know that your most banged up unit is your interior defensive line.

It is encouraging, however, to see the head coach, the defensive coordinator, and multiple defensive stars copping to a lack of discipline during the win over the Steelers. It’s also encouraging to know that the offensive has responded to being called out by the coaches in the last couple of weeks. I think the defense will respond likewise this week. They’ve got the talent to do so, and the history of being able to play with discipline.

The difference between Wilson and Bridgewater will be the difference in this game. Seattle 31, Minneapolis 20.

After two Super Bowl appearances in a row, everyone’s paying attention… yet even with all the scrutiny, it seems that there’s always some key issue that’s getting glossed over. It’s the elephant in the locker room, if you will, and gosh darn if I’ll let that ride. Join us on Saturday mornings for a little closer look at our NFC West Champions.

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