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Breaking down the call: Was Ndamukong Suh's hit illegal?

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Was Ndamukong Suh the victim of his own reputation, or did he once again violate the NFL rulebook?

Leon Halip

Ndamukong Suh was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions' preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was a massive hit, and it drew the attention of the national media, furthering Suh's legacy as a dirty player. But was this an instance of the officials looking to target Suh with poor calls, or was Suh truly at fault here?

There are several things we need to look at with this hit to determine if it was illegal:

Was the hit late?

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At first, it looks like Suh hits Chad Henne well after he releases the ball. But where is the line drawn as "too late?"

Here's what the rulebook has to say, via the one-step rule:

once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make direct contact with the passer only up through the rusher’s first step after such release (prior to second step hitting the ground)

So let's take a look at Suh at the moment of release:

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As Henne is releasing the ball, Suh is finishing his step with his right leg. This means he still is allowed another step to hit the quarterback. He hits Henne as he plants his left foot, complying with the one-step rule.

Verdict: Not late.

Was there contact to the head?

According to the rulebook, the following will result in a penalty:

[...] forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask, regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him

This is clear as day.

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Suh hit Henne squarely in the chest and arms. No contact is made with Henne's helmet.

Verdict: No contact to the head.

Did Suh use his helmet illegally?

Under the same section as the contact-to-the-head rule (Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9, for you rulebook geeks), there is a rule forbidding (emphasis added):

[...] lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/"hairline" parts of the helmet against any part of the passer’s body.

In other words, a player cannot lower his head and initiate contact with his helmet, regardless of where contact is made. While Suh may have been trying to lead with his left shoulder, he pretty clearly lowers his head and spears Henne in the chest with the crown of his helmet.

Verdict: Suh illegally leads with the crown of his helmet, resulting, correctly, in a roughing the passer penalty.

While it may seem like the officials are unfairly targeting Suh, this is not the case in this instance. Suh clearly violated the rules here, and the officials were correct in their assessment.