The Patriots made a key goal-line stand in the fourth quarter of their 28-21 win over the Steelers on Thursday night, and they were helped by a false start penalty that pushed Pittsburgh from inside the one-yard line to the five-yard line.
The penalty came after the Patriots defensive line shifted in unison toward the center of the defensive formation. One one side of the line Chandler Jones, Geneo Grissom and Malcom Brown slid toward the center. On the other side, Rob Ninkovich, Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga did the same.
When the Patriots shifted after linebacker Jerod Mayo made a call for the movement, the left side of the Steelers line jumped and flags flew.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took issue with the shift and argued with officials after they made the call. Following the game, Roethlisberger explained why he was upset.
"I thought that there was a rule against that," Roethlisberger said. "Maybe there’s not. Maybe it’s just an unwritten rule. … We saw it on film, that the Patriots do that. They shift and slide and do stuff on the goal line, knowing that it’s an itchy trigger finger-type down there."
"They time it up in the cadence," left guard Ramon Foster told USA TODAY. "Yeah, that’s one of the things they do. Welcome to Foxborough."
Foster added: "Kudos for them for thinking of that and making it happen in that situation. I can’t be mad. That’s on us. We can’t false start."
There is no rule against the shift, which Patriots coach Bill Belichick pointed out in a conference call on Sunday. The only rule written in the rule book is that a defense can't attempt to coax a false-start penalty by verbally simulating the snap count.
I asked Belichick if there was anything Mayo had to do in that situation so that officials didn't interpret his call as an attempt to simulate the snap count. All Mayo said, Belichick explained, was "move."
"We're not trying to simulate anything," Belichick said. "We're allowed to move on the defensive side of the ball, and we're allowed to move together. We don't have to move one at a time. If we move, then we make a call and we move. We're not trying to simulate anything. We're just trying to move the defense. That's perfectly legal. Defenses have done that for, I don't know, probably 75 years."
Earlier in the game, the Steelers got a one-yard touchdown run from fullback Will Johnson when the Patriots employed a similar defensive line shift. During the run, Johnson appeared to find some daylight in an area that Patriots defenders shifted away from.
Belichick was asked about how he weighed the risk versus the reward by using that kind of late movement while defending the goal line.
"Well I'd say like anything else you do there is a risk reward," he said. "The ball's on the one-yard line sometimes you try to be aggressive and make a play. You try to stop everything for as little as they need, a lot of times you stop nothing. You try to be aggressive and stop one particular thing or a certain type of play or a run to one side or the other. You hit it right you might be able to make the play. You hit it wrong, it's probably a relatively easy touchdown.
"But at that point you're just kind of gambling sometimes to just try to make a play. You don't have very much ground to defend so you've gotta be aggressive to be able to make it. It's not good enough to sort of sit there and do your job, be where you're supposed to be and let the guy fall in from a yard away. You have to do more than that. I'd say there's an element of that in that type of situation."