CINCINNATI — The rule is clear. Hitting a defenseless player in the head or neck area is prohibited and should be called a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.
That didn’t stop coach Hue Jackson and many of the Browns (0-11) from complaining about the pivotal fourth-quarter penalty on rookie free safety Jabrill Peppers in a 30-16 loss to the Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I thought it was clean,” rookie defensive end Myles Garrett said. “I don’t say it’s getting soft, but at some point, when you catch the ball you’ve got to be able to affect the receiver, and he hit him clean with his shoulder, below the head and neck area, so you’ve just got to play on.
“Just because it was a hard hit doesn’t mean it’s a penalty.”
On third-and-5 from the Cleveland 40-yard line with 3:57 left, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw deep down the left sideline for receiver Josh Malone, who tried to make a one-handed catch while cornerback Jamar Taylor held his right arm. Peppers came from the middle of the field and dislodges the ball, but his helmet hit Malone under the chin.
Peppers accepted the call better than his coach and teammates.
“I try to keep it within the strike zone, the ref, that’s their job to call it if it’s not, so they made the right call,” he said. “I just tried to make a play for my team, guess I came in a little high, but just got to live with it and move on.”
The Bengals were awarded a first down, and Joe Mixon scored on an 11-yard run three plays later for a 30-16 lead with 2:57 left.
“I just wanted to separate him from the ball, get them into a fourth-and-5, maybe they punt, maybe they try to go for it, who knows?” Peppers said. “That definitely gives us a chance to win this ballgame if the call wasn’t made, but it is what it is.”
With an emphasis on player safety and reducing concussions, the NFL has cracked down on hits to the head and neck.
The rule reads: Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is: forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him.
Jackson said Peppers’ contact with the head and neck area was inadvertent and the “secondary piece” of the hit. He would like to see that type of penalty be reviewable by replay, which it isn’t.
“I thought the shoulder hit the guy in the chest,” he said. “The torque of the head and those things could’ve brought the offensive player’s helmet down on our defensive player, so that’s football to me.
“He didn’t target the guy’s head. That’s a huge call in the game and you’ve got to get that one right. To me, you go back and look at the replay. It’s just too big of a play in the game.”
Peppers, the No. 25 pick, has had a difficult season at his new position and has struggled to make plays, including missing the chance for an interception Sunday. He said it’s on him to make sure he hits lower.
“If I knew I was going to get a personal foul, I would’ve gotten my money’s worth,” he said. “But I thought I kept it in the strike zone. But at the end of the day it’s a bang-bang play. I’ve got to know, with all the player safety things going on, that I can’t leave anything to chance, anything to doubt.”
Jackson and the defensive players said they want Peppers to continue playing with the same style and intensity.
“Don’t change a thing,” Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “As a corner, that’s what we want our free safety to do and he did teaching technique right there.”
Peppers said Jackson told him not to lose his aggression. Peppers thanked him for believing in him through the difficult start to his career.
“I know I started out rough, but we’re going to get this thing turned around and I’m going to keep getting better and better, be the player they know I can be,” he said.
Jackson was asked if the Browns don’t get the close calls from officials because of their record.
“Yeah, that could be true,” he said. “I don’t want to believe that. But I think sometimes when it’s like it is, we don’t get the favorable things.
“We haven’t had one of those go our way this year. I hope when we are winning — because we will here soon — that we get all of the calls, and there’s a bunch of people that owe us some stuff when the time comes.”
Cornerback Jason McCourty was also upset about a third-down pass interference call on him in the third quarter that set up a Bengals touchdown rather than a field goal. He said receiver Brandon LaFell admitted it wasn’t a penalty.
“That’d be a very good question for the head of officiating,” McCourty said of the team’s record affecting the calls. “Ask him that, ’cause we want to know the answer.”