Inside Slant: When a defensive lineman gets 'defenseless player' protection

One of the fashionable criticisms of NFL officiating is to suggest that it's now illegal to "play football" the way most of us conceive of the game. Physical play, violent contact and now even pancake blocks at times appear fair game for penalties.

That was the sense many of you had Monday night when referee Jeff Triplette's crew called Seattle Seahawks guard James Carpenter for unnecessary roughness, wiping out a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to receiver Percy Harvin. When you watch the replay, you see Carpenter blocking Washington Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker to the ground and then diving on top of him in what seemed a standard finish of the block.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll initially termed the penalty "outrageous" and complained to the league about it. Presumably, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told Carroll the same thing he said this week on the NFL Network. Did you know that a player on the ground is considered in a "defenseless posture," thus making his head and neck area off limits to contact? Carpenter didn't, Carroll didn't and I'm guessing most of us in the audience did not, as well.

As part of its effort to increase player safety, the NFL lists 10 definitions of a defenseless player in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). No. 5: "A player on the ground." Article 7(b) notes that prohibited contact against a defenseless player includes "forcibly hitting the defenseless player's head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder ..."

As a result of Carpenter's block, Baker was on the ground. By NFL rule, Carpenter needed either to leave him alone -- a difficult request for an offensive lineman during a live play -- or "bury" him with contact to an area other than the head or neck. (Carpenter's forearm appeared to hit Baker high, intentionally or otherwise.)

I think we can agree that this penalty isn't called on every occurrence. What's surprising is that Triplette's crew has called what I term "behavior penalties" relatively infrequently this season.

The ESPN Stats & Information chart below compiles all calls, accepted or declined, for personal fouls, roughing, taunting, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct. These penalties all require some level of subjective judgment, as opposed to, say, false starts -- which either happened or didn't.

Triplette's crew called a total of five through the first five weeks of 2014, placing it near the bottom of the league's 17 crews. Based on these figures, which most NFL teams monitor as well, you're more likely to get away with a hit on a defenseless player with crews led by Triplette, Walt Coleman, Bill Leavy or Pete Morelli than you are with the crews of Gene Steratore or Jerome Boger. Steratore has called more than six times the number of these penalties than those at the bottom of the list.

Meanwhile, at the top of this post is our weekly look at frequency of all calls from each crew. (Thanks to ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin for the fancy upgraded graphic.)