Dirty Laundry: Tillman's coverage

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

I think we’ve got something going here with our new feature on questionable calls -- so much so that I took your advice and spiced up the name a bit. “Dirty Laundry” narrowly beat out “The ref blackin’ blue it!” Thanks for all of your suggestions.

This week we’ll take a look at a non-call from Chicago’s 17-14 victory over Pittsburgh, one that I originally saw no controversy in whatsoever. Here are the basics: Tillman


Down, distance and placement: Third-and-2 at Chicago’s 25.

Time remaining: 3:29 in fourth quarter.

Synopsis of play: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes a shot into the end zone. Receiver Santonio Holmes has a couple of steps on Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, but Tillman -- his back to the line of scrimmage -- leaps at the last second and distracts Holmes as he tries to make the catch. Pass falls incomplete.

There is a general belief that defenders must play the ball, and during Tuesday’s SportsNation chat, several people asked whether Tillman was illegally “face-guarding” Holmes. In truth, there is nothing in the NFL rulebook that prevents it. (Here’s a good eHow explanation.)

Face-guarding is not always the preferred approach from a technique standpoint; if you lose track of the ball and run into a receiver coming back for it, you’ll be called for pass interference. But when you watch Tillman on the replay, you see his leap is perfectly timed to disrupt Holmes’ concentration. And there was enough separation between them that Tillman never made contact.

There’s another part of this play that falls more into the gray area of pass defense, however. When you watch the replay, you see Holmes immediately sprint past Tillman. At about the 16-yard line -- 9 yards past the line of scrimmage -- Tillman reaches out and grabs the back of Holmes’ jersey and holds it for a couple of yards. Did this constitute pass interference? Illegal contact? Or was it just a veteran move from Tillman?

The NFL rule book defines pass interference as “any act by a player [that] … significantly hinders an eligible receiver’s opportunity to catch the ball.” Did the contact slow down Holmes enough to make the catch more difficult? I don’t think so. And don’t forget this important caveat: Pass interference rules don’t apply until the ball is in the air. I never saw a replay that confirmed whether Roethlisberger still had the ball when Tillman grabbed Holmes.

As we discussed last week, however, defenders are prevented from making intentional contact with a receiver more than 5 yards downfield. That’s the definition of illegal contact, and by strict interpretation, officials could have been justified in enforcing that 5-yard penalty against Tillman. From my vantage point, though, it looked like Tillman successfully utilized some veteran techniques to save a potential game-winning touchdown.

Now, on to our updated Challenge Tracker, which I've streamlined at your request to make it less confusing: