When Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones contorted his body on a breathtaking, over-the-shoulder catch for a 40-yard touchdown against Tampa Bay in Week 3, one figured there would be a steady diet of deep shots to Jones from Matt Ryan.

Such hasn't necessarily been the case.

Actually, that was Jones' only play of 30 or more yards this season. He had three receptions of 40-plus yards last season in just five games, including an 81-yard, catch-and-run touchdown against St. Louis.

For his career, Jones has 16 catches of 40-plus yards, including seven in 13 games during his rookie season (2011).

Ryan, of course, wants to re-establish the deep-ball chemistry with Jones. Naturally, he has to have enough time to throw down the field. That's been a tall task, with all the changes along the offensive line and Ryan admittedly off target, at times.

During his weekly radio show on 680 The Fan, Ryan talked about throwing deep to Jones, specifically in last week's loss against Detroit in London.

"Well, we had a couple of opportunities: one on a double move on third down," Ryan said. "He made a really good catch. The ball was thrown just a little too far out to him. It’s one of those chances that you’ve got to take.

"And then we had another opportunity where Julio was running down the left side of the field and we probably would have had a chance, but the protection broke down. It’s going to happen again against defenses. But we knew going into it, with [the Lions'] pass rush, we were probably going to have three or four chances to get the ball down the field, and we only ended up getting two. So we would have liked to get another one or two."

Ryan has thrown more screens passes to Jones as of late in an effort to get the ball out quicker and also give Jones a chance to be his play-making self. Jones typically draws added defensive attention, and Ryan usually doesn't force the issue. And although Jones has blazing speed and felt stronger entering the season coming off a second foot surgery, Jones has been hampered by a lingering ankle injury.

Still, Jones hasn't missed any game action and remains confident in his ability as a deep threat. Ryan is right there with him.

"I think we’ve got a good mix of that," Ryan said of play calls going deep. "And we have to keep protecting. We’ve got to keep working on our pass protection. I actually thought our offensive line did a really good job against a really good front four (vs. Detroit)."

But the line will have do even better if Ryan and Jones hope to hit more home runs.
It was far from a flawless first start for James Stone, but the Atlanta Falcons center had reason to hold his head high.

Last Sunday's matchup against Ndamukong Suh and the stout Detroit Lions' front was a baptism by fire for Stone, an undrafted rookie out of Tennessee. When he looked over the film with offensive offensive line coach Mike Tice, Stone heard words like "firm in the pocket" and "good push in the run game" to describe his play, although Pro Football Focus gave Stone a minus-1.2 grade in run blocking for the game.

"He just really harped on me to continue to focus on my technique," Stone said of Tice's message, "just continue to stay in there and be more aware as a football player."

Stone probably also heard the phrase "don't ever do that again" in regard to the key offensive holding penalty he picked up in the late stages of the game to help the Lions overcome a 21-0 deficit in a 22-21 Falcons loss.

"About that last play, there's just certain situation where you can't have an offensive penalty right there," Stone said.

But now that's behind him. It's time for Stone and the rest of the Falcons to focus on improving in the second half of the season.

The Falcons need Stone to be a solid force, despite his inexperience. Remember, the team's top two centers -- Joe Hawley and Peter Konz -- went down with season-ending ACL tears. Those injuries left Stone and guard Harland Gunn on the depth chart at center.

Stone played all 60 snaps in his first NFL start. He didn't blame his late-game blunder on fatigue.

"I don't feel like I got tired," he said. "You get emotions and stuff running in critical situations. But I don't feel like I really got tired any more than you would in any other game.

"Coach Tice said he felt like I did some good things out there; it was a game I'd be able to build on. Of course, I had mistakes out there. I had plays I could have done better that would have helped us out. But still, there were some things to build on."

Stone and the rest of the Falcons used the bye week to get away from football, at least physically. Mentally, Stone planned to remain in the trenches.

"Just getting in the books and making sure I'm good on all my calls," Stone said. "Really just being firmer in the pocket, that's really one thing I want to focus on. I have to be firmer in the middle."

Come Monday, it's back to work with preparation for next Sunday's NFC South road matchup at Tampa Bay. When the Falcons defeated the Buccaneers 56-14 in Week 3, Tampa Bay was without star Gerald McCoy. The league's highest-paid defensive tackle is now back in the lineup and prepared to give the Falcons' offensive line fits.

Stone might find himself matched with McCoy on occasion.

"That's another fantastic player, and we're going to have to game-plan and things of that nature," Stone said. "You have to have the best plan to win, going against a player of that magnitude."
It's one thing to give up a 20-yard gain. It's borderline ridiculous to give up almost half the field on a play in just about every game.

Such has been an issue for the 2-6 Atlanta Falcons through the first eight games. They have surrendered 11 plays of 40-plus yards, which is tied for the league lead with the Houston Texans, according to ESPN Statistics and Information. Those 11 plays have totaled 607 yards.

"It's been our Achilles' heel," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "The majority of the game, we could be shutting them down. And it seems like each game, there will be like one or two just big, big plays. If we stop those, we probably win some of those games. We just have to limit those big plays and we'll get a different outcome."

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsReceivers like Chicago's Alshon Jeffery getting behind the secondary for big plays has been a familiar sight for the Atlanta Falcons.
The only game the Falcons haven't given up a 40-plus-yard play was in a 56-14 blowout of Tampa Bay in Week 3. Even in that contest, they allowed Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown to connect with rookie Mike Evans for a 35-yard gain.

Six of the 11 plays have come on third down, including a 76-yard touchdown from Cincinnati's Andy Dalton to Mohammed Sanu on third-and-6, and this past Sunday's 59-yard touchdown connection from Detroit's Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate on third-and-25.

The primary reasons have been a lack of pressure up front and communication breakdowns in the secondary.

"On the one the other day, we let (Stafford) out of the pocket, on the 59-yarder," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "He wasn't sitting in the pocket. He was out of the pocket. And that's the same thing that happened with the 74-yarder (against the Bears).

"When a quarterback gets out, he extends the play. Everybody sees the back end at the result, and who was there at the point. But what's the quarterback doing out of the pocket to begin with? It does fall on a lot of people's shoulders. ... It is a group effort."

Nolan considers an explosive play to be either a 20-yard pass play or 10-yard run. His calculation only emphasizes how absurd it is for the Falcons to have surrendered so many 40-plus-yard plays.

"Obviously, you don't want any," Nolan said. "I would say that one of the things explosives lead to is points. If you're a good unit, you get out of bad situations like that without points, and ours have typically led to points. That's the thing with big plays that you don't like: The one statistic that matters the most is points. And that's what big plays lead to. So that's the disturbing thing about them."

Those 11 plays have resulted in seven touchdowns and 52 points. The point total would have been more had it not been for an interception in the end zone by Robert McClain against New Orleans and missed field goals by Bengals kicker Mike Nugent and Vikings kicker Blair Walsh.

So how do the Falcons correct the problem? The pass rush has improved as of late, but they still rank second-to-last in the league in sacks per pass attempt. Nolan no doubt would admit he made a mistake in not playing Jonathan Massaquoi more snaps against the Lions, considering Massaquoi has shown the most progress of any pass-rusher in recent weeks. Veteran Osi Umenyiora probably earned himself more looks with his strong showing in London.

The linebackers have to stop missing tackles. On the back end, the communication and coverage has to improve. Strong safety Kemal Ishmael, known more for his tackling, has had a few coverage hiccups. Maybe newly signed veteran safety Charles Godfrey could help in terms of coverage, or even speedy rookie Dez Southward. Plus, the Falcons should get their defensive leader back if strong safety William Moore (shoulder) returns from short-term injured reserve in late November.

Since the start of the 2013 season, the Falcons have allowed 34 plays of at least 40 yards. That is seven more than any other team. It's a trend they need to halt immediately.

"It's something that you don't what to give up, but it happens," Ishmael said. "But we're coming together as a team. We're not pointing any fingers at anybody. We're just going to work through it."
Atlanta Falcons receiver/return specialist Devin Hester played a season-low 11 offensive snaps in this past Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Lions, and most would assume it had everything to do with Harry Douglas returning the lineup from a foot injury.

But Hester and Douglas were on the field together for the first three games of the season, and Hester averaged 20.6 snaps in those games. Hester played 52 percent of the snaps or better in the four games Douglas was sidelined.

When asked about his decreased playing time against the Lions, Hester was far from upset but couldn't provide an answer.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who used a four-receiver set with Julio Jones, Roddy White, Douglas and Hester during the first series against the Lions, explained Hester's playing time.

"We had a four-receiver package," Koetter said. "We made a decision, as the week went on based on Detroit's success they had with their front four -- I think they were top two or three in the league in sacks -- and with two new starters on the O-line, that we better batten down the edges a little bit. And going four wide receivers might not be in our best interest, even though having Harry back and Devin, getting those guys back at full speed, that's something we can definitely use. But that might not have been the best front to do against.

"Plus, although it was supposed to be a 'home' game, the crowd noise was an issue. There was a lot of noise in that stadium so, once again, that's another thing. When you're having to use a silent cadence in the shotgun, your tackles are looking in at the ball, not looking at the defensive end. So that's another reason you really don't want to shorten those edges down."

Koetter went with the four-wide look on the Falcons' first third down of the game. Jones ran a crossing route, Hester a go, Douglas a comeback and White a dig. The end result was Matt Ryan hitting White for a 24-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Falcons' 22-yard line. Three plays later, the Falcons again used their four-wide set, with Ryan finding White for a 12-yard gain on first-and-10. The drive ended with Ryan's 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie Devonta Freeman.

Maybe Hester and the four-receiver set will see more action in the next game at Tampa Bay. Hester's best all-around game this season was in Week 3 against the Buccaneers.

Mike Smith, Falcons focus on second half

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure says Mike Smith's team hits the bye week with a five-game skid, but the head coach is undaunted by questions about his job security.
Although the bye week should give the Atlanta Falcons a chance to regroup and forget about the first half of the season, one play is sure to linger in the mind of quarterback Matt Ryan.

His costly interception -- thrown directly to Lions cornerback Cassius Vaughn in the third quarter of Sunday's 22-21 loss in London -- is likely to go down as the worst pass of his career. Ryan took full responsibility for it, saying he cost his team the game.

[+] EnlargeCassius Vaughn
Jordan Mansfield/Getty ImagesCassius Vaughn's third-quarter interception led to a Lions field goal.
During his weekly radio show on Atlanta's 680 The Fan, Ryan revisited the moment at least one more time.

"It's uncharacteristic; just a bad mistake that you'd love to have back,'' Ryan said. "In order to win football games, we can't make plays like that. I'm disappointed. But part of being a professional is being able to put it behind you and move forward. And that's what we're going to do.''

Ryan explained in more detail what he saw on the play.

"We had the play set up, a little slip screen with a double move going down the right-hand side and backside post by Roddy [White],'' Ryan said. "Got flushed. Went to my left-hand side and was looking deep and kind of saw Roddy take his angle but couldn't tell what was behind kind of on the other side of the field. Couldn't see it. And so, in all honesty, I was trying to ditch that ball away in a safe spot looking into that right side of the field and did not see [Vaughn]. And then when I let it go, he kind of popped behind the offensive line.

"Disappointing and frustrating, and a play that you can't make. You can't let it affect you. You've got to keep going.''

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was asked what he said to Ryan after such a poor play.

"Matt doesn't make a lot of bad plays,'' Koetter said. "When he does, he doesn't need me to tell him about it. He is way harder on himself than anybody else would ever be. You love that in a player.

"So at that point in the game, I was trying to just get Matt to forget about it and move on. It's hard not to dwell on a major mistake. Like I said, Matt is going to beat himself up. I was just trying to tell him 'Let it go and move on. We're going to need you to make some big plays as the game continues to unfold here to give us a chance to win.' And he did do that."

When the Falcons return to action after the bye, they'll play consecutive NFC South road games at Tampa Bay and Carolina. Away from Atlanta this season, Ryan has seven interceptions. Inside the Georgia Dome, he has one.
The Atlanta Falcons made a move Tuesday, but he had nothing to do with the NFL's trade deadline.

The team announced the addition of veteran free safety Charles Godfrey, who was released by the Carolina Panthers last week. The 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound Godfrey was a third-round pick of the Panthers in 2008. He played in 82 games with Carolina, starting 75. He has 11 career interceptions, including five in 2010.

Godfrey struggled in his move from safety to cornerback with the Panthers, so his release was no surprise. He had two more years left on his contract after 2014.

Godfrey suffered a torn Achilles in 2013, which limited him to two games. He turns 29 next month.

The Falcons no doubt are looking for more quality depth at the position, not so much a starter. They released Sean Baker to make room for Godfrey.

The team is happy with the play of Dwight Lowery at free safety. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan also praised strong safety Kemal Ishmael for his tackling, but Nolan knows Ishmael has had issues in coverage.

Promising rookie Dez Southward has made some strides and continues to get more snaps when Nolan turns to a three-safety look. But Nolan didn't indicate Southward would work his way into the starting lineup to give the Falcons a better cover guy.

Godfrey will have a quick reunion with his old teammates when the Falcons travel to Carolina Nov. 16. Ex-Falcons free safety Thomas DeCoud now starts for the Panthers.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had no issue with calling a screen pass to Julio Jones in the final minutes of Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Detroit Lions.

The short pass play on third-and-10 from the Lions' 40-yard line was dropped by Jones, stopping the clock with 1 minutes, 46 remaining in regulation with the Lions out of timeouts. The time added up as the Lions won on a Matt Prater last-second 48-yard field goal.

"When that drive started, we were actually thinking that we needed to score," Koetter explained of the four-minute drill. "We were up by two. We were actually thinking, with four minutes left and they had all three timeouts, we were thinking score.

"We went to third down on the first set and Harry [Douglas] made a fantastic catch on [a] wheel route. Then we went another run. And we threw a wide receiver screen to Julio on second-and-long, 22-yard gain. Now it's the two-minute warning. We get the hold on second down. When we had got the first screen to Julio, we were on the 39-yard line. So we're 4 yards off what we say is our imaginary field goal line, where Matt Bryant is pretty much automatic when we get it to the 35."

But Falcons rookie center James Stone was called for offensive holding on a run by Steven Jackson, stopping the clock.

"And we lost a yard on that, so we're back to the 40-yard line," Koetter continued. "So it's third-and-10. We need 10 for a first down that will win the game. We need 5 for a field goal that will extend our lead to they have to get a touchdown instead of a field goal. You've gotta think about your options there.

"Sure, you can run the ball, run the clock out 40 seconds, punt it. That's one of the plays you can make. I chose to go with trying to put the ball in our playmaker's hands with blockers in front of him on a play that had just worked for an explosive plays a little bit before that."

Instead, the end result was an incompletion after the Jones drop.

"It didn't even enter my mind that that would be an incomplete pass," Koetter said. "I mean, I look at that play as an extended running play; a perimeter run with your wide receiver running it and blockers in front of him. It did not even enter my mind that the clock would stop because we complete that pass every time.

"If I had it to do over again, I'd do the exact same thing because I'm trying to get us at least in field goal range and possibly get a first down to win the game. We don't have any runs that are going to gain us 10 yards against a stacked box. They got us outnumbered. It's just going to be tough duty. So, you're almost saying, 'OK, we give up. We're going to let our defense play against the clock.' We didn't play it that way."
The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m., and several names such as Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, Oakland's Justin Tuck, and even Atlanta's Osi Umenyiora have been mentioned in trade rumors.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank always is looking for ways to improve his team. But he doesn't appear to be a big proponent of in-season trades.

"I think in general, the personnel department and the coaching department, they have an extended period of time, starting during the season, where they are constantly evaluating themselves and constantly evaluating their talent, player-wise and coaching-wise, and reflecting on what changes they can make as they go into the following year," Blank explained to ESPN.com. "And obviously, it's a long offseason, both through free agency and the draft, to prepare for the following season.

"Once the season starts, it's not easy to make those changes because the chemistry is kind of set in the locker room. You can move it and change it and the coaches can motivate it differently. But players, they are used to working in certain schemes both offensively and defensively. It's not as easy to drop players in and out as it might be in other sports. If you're playing golf, you might be able to drop someone else into the foursome to go out and play because chemistry doesn't make a lot of difference. In this sport, it makes a huge difference."

Coach Mike Smith still believes the Falcons can make a big turnaround in the second half of the season so trading away players at this point might be viewed as a sign of waving the white towel.

According to ESPN Statistics and Information, the Falcons currently have $3,678,774 in cap room. That would indicate the Falcons would be sellers rather than buyers if they're involved in any trade by 4 p.m.

The Film Don't Lie: Falcons

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
A weekly look at what the Atlanta Falcons must fix:

A team with as many shortcomings as the Falcons cannot afford mental mistakes. That's why during the bye week, they have to reflect on what went wrong in the final minutes of Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Lions and make sure those types of mistakes don't happen again, especially if they play in any close games moving forward.

The Falcons had two penalties in the late stages that stopped the clock with the Lions out of timeouts. Rookie center James Stone had a holding penalty with 1 minutes, 55 seconds left in regulation that kept the clock from running after a Steven Jackson run up the middle. Chalk that up to an inexperienced player getting caught up in the anxiety of the moment. But the Falcons, as a team, have been whistled for offensive holding a league-high 18 times.

A more egregious error was veteran defensive tackle Paul Soliai's defensive holding penalty with 24 seconds remaining. It again stopped the clock and gave the Lions a chance to regroup. And a review of the film showed just how blatant Soliai was with his hold.

"It was a good call," Soliai said Monday. "Can't complain about the call. And you can't bring the game back. But I guess I have to do something different and play the scoop block different. I've been doing this for eight years, but a holding is a holding ... I just have to go get ready for Tampa."

Those two late-game blunders, along with a dropped pass by Julio Jones with 1:50 left, played into the poor clock management the Falcons can ill-afford in close games -- but that's not to say any of the remaining games will come down to the wire.

And by the way, coach Mike Smith had no issue with the timeout he called with 25 seconds left in regulation and the Lions driving.
Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith had his team meet late last night, then the players were given the rest of the week off with a "Falcons-on-Falcons" practice scheduled for Monday.

Yes, the bye couldn't have come at a better time for the 2-6 Falcons, who need to rest and regroup after a grueling loss to Detroit and long week in London.

The week off will give a number of players a chance to heal.

Like rookie left tackle Jake Matthews, who has been battling through an ankle injury since the season opener and then aggravated it again in a Week 5 loss to the New York Giants.

Like explosive running back Antone Smith, who suffered some sort of neck injury in Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Lions. An obviously stiff Smith was spotted in the locker room Monday night but could not comment on his status.

Like defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who missed the London game due to a foot injury.

Or like rookie linebacker Prince Shembo, who continues to be plagued by knee issues and gave the starting job back to Joplo Bartu. Shembo expects to be back to full strength after the bye.

Not to mention all four of the team's top receivers --- Julio Jones (ankle), Roddy White (knee, hamstring), Harry Douglas (foot), and Devin Hester (ankle, hamstring) -- have battled injuries at some point during the season.

And the Falcons, with five offensive linemen already on season-ending injured reserve, saw tackle Gabe Carimi go down with an ankle injury against the Lions.

"It comes at the right time for us to get some players healthy," Smith said of the bye. "We've got a lot of guys who are nicked up and banged up that may not necessarily be on the injury report. But they are nicked and banged up."

The Falcons' next game is Nov. 9 at Tampa Bay.

Mike Smith: One game at a time

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Although his team is 2-6 and a long shot to make the playoffs, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith is not worried about his job security as this juncture.

Smith addressed the media Monday, a day after the Falcons blew a 21-point lead and lost to the Detroit Lions 22-21 in London.

Smith was asked Monday if he has any concerns about job security, with his team on a five-game losing streak.

"No," Smith said. "None whatsoever. We're going to do what we've done for the last six-plus years and prepare each and every week like we know how to do it. And I'm going to continue to do that until Mr. Blank tells me otherwise.''

Team owner Arthur Blank recently told ESPN.com he had confidence in both Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to guide a turnaround and said he would wait to see how the season plays out before evaluating changes. But Blank was noticeably frustrated after Sunday's loss in London, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "There's no way you lose that game -- just no way. There's nothing else I can say."

Smith was asked if he felt a little more pressure based on Blank's public comments about the loss.

"I talk to Mr. Blank after every game and I think that those conversations do stay private,'' Smith said. "And I do agree with him. When you're up 21-0 at halftime, you should not lose that football game.''

Two seasons ago, Smith guided the Falcons to a 13-3 record and a NFC title game appearance. But in the past 24 games, the Falcons are 6-18.

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Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: Baltimore Ravens receiver Steve Smith penalized for offensive pass interference, overturning a go-ahead touchdown with 32 seconds remaining
Referee: Clete Blakeman
Analysis: Blakeman's crew entered Week 8 calling the NFL's fewest penalties per game (12, declined and accepted). It had called only one offensive pass inference penalty this season, but there was no hesitation Sunday in making a decision that wiped out a game-changing play.

[+] EnlargeSteve Smith
AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe Ravens' Steve Smith eludes Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson after catching a pass from Joe Flacco in the final minute on Sunday. Smith was penalized for pushing Bengals safety George Iloka during the play, negating the potential winning touchdown.
OPI is among the NFL's 2014 points of emphasis, but the league's new vigilance instructions -- focused on pushing off at the top of the route and downfield blocking before the pass -- don't apply in this case. Smith and Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka were coming back toward a long Joe Flacco pass when the contact occurred.

Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(g) prevents either an offensive or defensive player from "initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass" when the ball is in the air.

The replay reveals that Smith -- a 14-year veteran who knows all the tricks -- grabbed Iloka's jersey at the chest with his left hand. With his right arm, Smith pushed away Iloka's left arm. The contact wasn't violent, but Iloka fell to the ground before Smith caught the pass and dashed into the end zone.

Some might believe Iloka would have fallen anyway, with no contact, given his body position. Others have suggested that Iloka flopped or otherwise exaggerated the contact. Neither seems a credible explanation.

We'll never know if Iloka would have fallen, and it doesn't mitigate the fact that Smith initiated contact. Blakeman's crew is the NFL's most conservative and probably not susceptible to a flop. Flopping rather than tackling Smith in that situation wouldn't make much sense for Iloka, knowing the relative unlikelihood that Blakeman would call OPI.

The "controversy" is that you don't often see officiating crews insert themselves into game-deciding plays. The tendencies of Blakeman's crew suggest it is especially likely to "let them play." Smith was no doubt counting on that trend continuing, but based on the wording of the NFL rule, he committed OPI. It was a brutal turn of events for the Ravens and their fans, but the call was more than defensible.

Play: Detroit Lions are called for delay of game, giving them a second chance to kick a game-winning field goal
Referee: Pete Morelli
Analysis: Sunday's game in London demonstrated that even delay of game penalties -- called when the play clock hits :00 before the snap -- aren't nearly as straightforward as they seem.

On several occasions earlier in the game, the Lions appeared to snap the ball after the clock's expiration but were not called for a delay. On place-kicker Matt Prater's errant 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining, however, they were.

Two important mitigating factors in our understanding of this penalty surfaced.

First, the clock we see on television graphics is not official and might be out of sync with the actual stadium clock. Second, standard officiating mechanics call for the back judge to watch the play clock and -- only after it expires -- look to see if the ball has been snapped. In theory, this mechanic gives the offense a bit more time and prevents the kind of bang-bang call we saw Sunday.

Technically, Prater's misfire never occurred because the penalty wiped out the play. If there were no penalty, the Atlanta Falcons would have won. The Lions had no timeouts remaining, but there was no 10-second runoff because the clock hadn't been running. (Quarterback Matthew Stafford had spiked the ball on the previous play.) The delay pushed the Lions back five yards, and Prater drilled the ensuing 48-yard game winner.

The question is whether back judge Dale Shaw was too aggressive in seeing a delay. Prior to this game, Morelli's crew had called three delay of game penalties in 2014, about midway through the range of this call among the NFL's 17 crews. (The high was eight, and the low was one.)

Though that is a relatively small sample, it's enough to believe Morelli and Shaw are not particularly flag-happy on this mechanic. We can't see the official game clock in the replay, so in this case we have to trust that Shaw followed mechanics and saw what he called.

Play: Roughing the passer on Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu
Referee: Walt Anderson
Analysis: In the second quarter, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles scrambled out of the pocket toward his right. A yard before reaching the sideline, he threw a 25-yard completion to receiver Riley Cooper to convert a third down. Anderson then penalized Mathieu 15 yards for a late hit on Foles.

Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(a) provides guidelines for this penalty. It requires a call if "a pass rusher clearly should have known that the ball had left the passer's hands before contact was made." It adds: "Once a pass has been released by a passer, a rushing defender may make contact with the passer only up through the rusher's first step after such release (prior to the second step hitting the ground); thereafter the rusher must be making an attempt to avoid contact and must not continue to 'drive through' or otherwise forcibly contact the passer."

Finally, the rule states that "incidental or inadvertent contact by a player who is easing up ... will not be considered significant."

When you examine the replay in slow motion, you see that Mathieu completed a step toward Foles either simultaneously with the release of the ball or close to it. At the conclusion of his next step, Mathieu began shifting to an upright posture as if he were slowing down. His right arm/shoulder made modest contact with Foles' chest, sending the quarterback to the ground. Anderson, who was standing behind Foles and thus had an obstructed view at best of Mathieu's steps, immediately threw his flag.

By now, we all understand the NFL's desire to protect quarterbacks from injury. This play, however, stretches the deepest boundaries of their codified attempts. An argument could be made that Mathieu took his one legal step before contact, that he eased up before the collision and that the hit was not significant. It's true that Foles landed on his back, but that was largely because he left his feet to make the throw and hadn't regained full balance upon landing.

In Anderson's defense, this analysis required a slow-motion view of the play that he never saw. The penalty is not reviewable. Finally, Mathieu did extend his arm slightly, an argument against "incidental" contact.

Anderson entered Week 8 with four roughing the passer penalties, tied for third-most in the NFL. That's an active pace. In the end, his call stretched the definition and intent of this rule.