Should the sift block that injured T.J. Watt and Kayvon Thibodeaux be legal? Maybe it’s time for the NFL to change the rules.
With 11:45 left in the second quarter of the Detroit Lions’ Sunday afternoon preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit quarterback David Blough handed off to running back Jamar Jefferson on what turned out to be a relatively inconsequential one-yard gain.
At least, it was inconsequential for the Lions. For the Steelers, not so much. As you can see, Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson crossed the formation from left to right and laid a low block on Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt.
Here’s another, better view.
Hockenson appeared to be aiming for Watt’s knees on the block, which you would think is an illegal play. But it isn’t. Hockenson wasn’t flagged for the play, which is correct under the league’s current rule book. Watt was helped from the field with what was called a left knee injury, though reports indicate that the injury isn’t too serious.
The debate over such blocks ran hot last Sunday, when Cleveland Browns tight end (and son of Randy Moss) Thaddeus Moss crossed the formation to make a very similar block against New York Giants pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux. Moss was not flagged for the block either, because the block isn’t illegal.
Thibodeaux wasn’t as fortunate — he suffered a sprained MCL, and may or may not be ready for the Giants’ regular-season opener against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, September 11.
The larger question, of course, is: Why is a block in which an offense player can target a vulnerable part of a defensive player’s body legal in the first place? In May, 2021, the NFL expanded the low block rules, but the book still doesn’t cover what are known as “sift blocks.”
After the Moss/Thibodeaux play, several former NFL offensive linemen, and current offensive line experts, explained why the play isn’t as “dirty” as it may look.
“They dragged the tight end across the formation, and everybody runs this play,” former offensive lineman Brian Baldinger said on the NFL Network. “They seal the backside with the tight end, and almost every tight end goes low. They can’t stay up and take on these defensive ends. They go to cut-block, which is legal, okay? It’s really up to Kayvon here to just drop his shoulder on it, and it went below his shoulder. It’s kind up to Kayvon to protect himself a little better, because that’s how these tight ends are going to block him in this league.”
So, we know that the play isn’t dirty or illegal by the letter of the NFL’s current rulebook. But should it be illegal? Given the league’s supposed emphasis on player safety (which can be viewed historically with as much cynicism as you’d like), is it really wise to leave a block that forces the defender to adjust to that degree out of the book as a banned strategy?
One thing we know for sure — the more marquee players that get hurt by this block, the more the generally reactive NFL rulemakers will step in and do something about it.