GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike Daniels wasn’t sure whether Kirk Cousins had thrown the ball, which made it look like the Green Bay Packers defensive tackle gave up on the play after he didn’t hit the Minnesota Vikings‘ quarterback.
Daniels soon discovered that Cousins tucked it and scrambled out of trouble on the third-quarter play in Sunday’s 29-29 tie at Lambeau Field.
But Daniels also said another thought popped into his head.
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“If I wrap him and take him down — [Vikings guard Mike] Remmers is already on me, and Remmers is going to fall on me — then I fall on the quarterback, and now it’s [a 15-yard penalty],” Daniels said. “And now it’s like, ‘Oh, Mike, you’re an idiot.’ So I don’t know. Who knows? It’s just trying to be smart without losing my aggression, and you just don’t know.
“Whether the ball is out or not, I hit him as soon as he was moving his arm. Last year, that’s a clean quarterback hit. Now it was like, ‘Whoa. Pull off.’ And there he goes running.”
Two weeks into the NFL season, and the Packers (1-0-1) don’t know what to do about all the penalties they’ve accrued because of hits on the quarterback. They were flagged three times for roughing the passer in the season-opener against the Bears, including one on Clay Matthews on a fourth down in the final minutes that gave the Bears another chance. Matthews got dinged again against the Vikings on a play that wiped out a potential game-clinching interception by Jaire Alexander, who was celebrating in the stands when referee Tony Corrente announced the penalty on Matthews with 1 minute, 37 seconds left and the Packers leading 29-21.
Matthews called it “a terrible call” and said, “I don’t know what else to do.”
The 10th-year linebacker wasn’t alone.
Roughing the passer has become the new catch-rule controversy, at least in Green Bay. The Packers had one such penalty all of last season. They have four times that many in two games.
“It’s hard to play defense now,” Daniels said. “That’s all there is to it. It’s just hard to play defense, really. I don’t know what to say.”
On Cousin’s fourth and final touchdown pass — a 22-yarder to Adam Thielen with 31 seconds left in regulation that, along with the ensuing two-point conversion, tied the game — Daniels bull rushed Vikings center Brett Jones and hit Cousins just below the waist as he threw.
“I was fearing for my life on the one he threw a touchdown,” Daniels said. “I didn’t know it was a touchdown at first, but I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I hit this guy at his waist. They might call me for hitting him in the knees.’ And I said, ‘Kirk, man, I was not trying to hit your knees.’”
Even Cousins apparently had empathy for Daniels’ and other defenders’ predicament.
“He said, ‘I know you weren’t, it’s tough,’” Daniels said.
This offseason, the NFL made protection of quarterbacks a point of emphasis, saying that “in some instances, the defender used all or part of his body weight to land on the quarterback immediately after the ball was thrown. These actions put the quarterback at risk for injury. The officiating department will emphasize that the defender is responsible for avoiding landing on the quarterback when taking him to the ground.”
But Corrente said to ESPN, which handled the referee’s pool report, that Matthews’ penalty did not fall under that point of emphasis or anything related to contact with the helmet. He instead said Matthews “lifted him and drove him into the ground.”
When asked what Matthews could have done to avoid a penalty, Corrente said: “Not picked him up and drove him into the ground.”
Replays appeared far less conclusive than what Corrente described. Matthews even put his left hand down in order to try to brace himself to avoid driving Cousins into the ground.
“I got my head across, my hands were down, didn’t dump him, hit him within the framework of the proper tackling area,” Matthews said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. Much like you saw with lowering the helmet in the preseason, hopefully the league gets the refs and tells them to tone it down a little bit because I don’t know what else to do.”
Said Nick Perry, who was penalized for roughing Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in the opener: “That’s something that we haven’t figured out yet. When you’re going full speed and you’re at a critical time like that getting him down, sometimes it comes out as just trying to get him down to the ground and not maliciously bringing him down with any force. But it always looks bad when we bring them down like that. It’s a tough one.
“Every week is going to be the approach of having to be safer. Now you’re going to have us playing a little bit more hesitant. Those plays like that could make or break a game. But that’s one of the opportunities that I feel like the refs should allow us to just play ball but keep a close eye on it. That’s really critical for them to make a call like that.”