- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2016

ASHBURN | When Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander spun off right tackle Morgan Moses, then sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins last Friday, he let out two yells.

The first was based in excitement. Alexander was part of the Redskins’ organization from 2006-2012, mostly playing as a backup linebacker and important member of special teams. He’s on his third team since leaving Washington, so a sack in FedEx Field was noteworthy for him. Even in the preseason.

His second yelp came after he saw the official’s yellow flag on the ground. Alexander was angry and most players looked confused. He was called for a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on a seemingly innocuous tackle. Cousins immediately stood up after the hit. No one went at Alexander as if he had done something untoward. The flag seemed strange.

“Oh, c’mon, man!” Alexander yelled.

Veteran official Ed Hochuli made a chopping motion when explaining the penalty to Alexander, insinuating striking a quarterback around the knees will be flagged as a penalty that carries the intent to injure because the quarterback was hit low.

“Nobody’s trying to [hurt him],” Alexander told Hochuli.

We know Alexander’s response because the Bills hooked microphones onto him during the game. We also know that the penalties drew the attention of the Redskins. Though the flags were beneficial, they made several players, on both sides of the ball, wonder about the coming difficulty of making a clean hit on the league’s crown jewel, the quarterback, this coming season.

Each season, the NFL sends referees around to training camps to outline that year’s “points of emphasis.” The visits are common through each major sports league. The NFL has been incrementally trying to reduce the strike zone for defensive players hitting offensive players. Nowhere is this is more apparent than in the treatment of quarterbacks, who are protected by slide rules, and now rules that produce 15-yard personal fouls for hitting from the shoulders up or knees down.

“It’s going to be a long season, man,” Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker said. “Like the one that Lorenzo Alexander had, he was losing his balance, he wasn’t malicious, what is he supposed to do? The [offensive lineman] is pushing him down, he’s trying to make a sack. Wasn’t like he just went and took his legs out. He just made a form tackle.

“It’s like, what do you tell a guy to do? But, that’s the league we play in right now. They’re protecting the quarterback. You just have to learn how to play within those rules.”

Redskins coach Jay Gruden made Alexander’s penalty, plus other roughing the passer calls against the Bills, part of a teamwide film session after the game. Gruden said he thought the hit by Alexander was clean. But, he’s trying to make his team aware of that what looks clean to players from both teams, plus on each side of the ball, is a penalty in the referee’s eyes.

“The targets are becoming smaller and smaller for the quarterbacks, and protection is necessary for the quarterbacks but it is something that the defenders have to be aware of,” Gruden said. “You can’t go low and you can’t hit them in the head, period. It is important for us to continue to watch that and learn from what referees are calling and we have to continue to go over that and preach it and coach it.”

There is a feeling that the referees are working to make a preseason point before somewhat relenting during the regular season.

“It’s really ticky-tack,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It’s how they’ve been calling the whole preseason. Really, how they call every preseason ever since I’ve been in the NFL.

“Usually, they won’t throw as many flags in the [regular-season] game. That’s always how they got to start it out.”

The issue from the referee’s perspective reads like this:

“Quarterbacks in a passing posture within the pocket are protected from forcible contact to the knee area or below. A defender may still make contact low as long as he only uses his arm(s) to swipe, wrap or grab the passer in an attempt to tackle him.”

Which, in many ways, is what it appeared Alexander did. Most of his body was below Cousins‘ knees, but his right arm was well above Cousins knee. Alexander’s left arm starts just above Cousins‘ right knee before sliding down with the momentum of his body. Then, he wrapped Cousins to the ground.

A few plays later, Alexander hit Cousins in the shoulder and chest area just after the ball was released. That drove Cousins hard onto his back and into the ground, snapping his head back. Cousins had to pull his helmet back down because it almost popped off. There was no flag.

“I think when you watch the film, you would say those were really tough calls,” defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “The defenders really didn’t have any other choice but to do what they did. But, we have to understand the rules and that’s the game we play in, that the quarterback is a protected player, rightfully so. You’ve got to know that as rushers. That’s just the NFL we play in.”

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