One of the biggest moments in Sunday's game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Detroit Lions was a strange call on Detroit's final drive of the game. Facing a third down, the Lions ran the ball, and as the play ended a flag came hurling in from the back judge. The call was a defensive hold on a Falcons lineman. Holding on a defensive lineman is rarely called in the NFL, so it left the announcers and fans quite puzzled. Why would the refs call such a weird penalty at such a crucial moment? Because the Falcons had been getting away with it all game.
A key component in the Lions' running scheme is getting linemen to the second level to block safeties and linebackers. If they are unable to do that, the defense has free lanes to jump in and make the tackle at or before the line of scrimmage. On defense, one way to prevent second-level blockers is to have big, unblockable linemen; another way is to hold.
Here you can clearly see Rob Sims trying to get to the second level to block one of two defenders. The rest of the linemen are doing their jobs quite well, so there is a lot of potential to this play. But notice the hand of the defensive player inside Sims' jersey. He is clearly holding him up, and the result?
Sims does a little pirouette and is unable to pick up either defender, both of whom contribute on the tackle for minimal yards. No flag was thrown on the play.
Later in the game, Riley Reiff was the victim of a defensive hold:
Here Reiff gets help from the tight end, then is supposed to head to the second level to take care of one of the linebackers. But that is not what ends up happening:
The Falcons player grabs both of Reiff's shoulder pads and drags him to the right. This, again, leaves two free defenders, and one of them ends up making the tackle on Joique Bell for a minimal gain:
If you look closely, you can see Reiff trying to make a play on that linebacker, but the hold prevents him from getting a hand on him. Again: no flag.
And that leads us to the penalty. There's really no question about this call. It was a clear and cut case of defensive holding:
Dominic Raiola is very clearly trying to get to the linebackers to create a lane, and he is obviously being restricted by the hold of the Falcons' defensive tackle. It's directly in plain sight, and the official who made the call was right there.
While the penalty may have seemed random, and conspiracy theorists may even call it scandalous, the truth is this was an issue all game. It is very likely a Lions player or coach tipped off the officials to these earlier infractions, and eventually the Falcons got caught.