You can bet coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers would have questions this morning if a Minnesota Vikings player had unnecessarily struck top defensive lineman Justin Smith in the knee Sunday night.
For that reason, I'll be interested in hearing the reaction from Harbaugh and 49ers players regarding the low block 49ers guard Joe Looney delivered against Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams. The play was winding down and Williams was looking over his shoulder as four Vikings players surrounded running back LaMichael James before tackling James for a 7-yard loss. Looney went low and struck the unsuspecting Williams in the right knee, bending the knee at an awkward angle and knocking Williams from the game.
Rules against illegal peel-back blocks prevent a player who is aligned in the tackle box at the snap from initiating contact "on the side and below the waist against an opponent if the blocker is moving toward his own end line and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side."
Looney did not strike Williams from the side. He struck Williams from the front, but Williams did not see it coming because he was looking back over his shoulder.
"The guys upstairs [Vikings coaches] were telling me that was one of those where we will probably want to send it into the league, so I’m looking forward to seeing it," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after the game. "They were pretty upset when they saw it. I’ve got to take a look at it."
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen called the play dirty. Williams said he needed to see replays before judging Looney's intent.
"I didn’t see him at all," Williams said. "I was just running towards the ball. He might’ve peeled back and got me. I don’t know where he came from. He hit me pretty low. We’ll watch it and see if it was dirty or not."
I've watched the replay several times. My initial reaction was that Looney's block was unnecessary because James appeared trapped in the backfield. The block appeared dirty in spirit because Williams could not see Looney approaching. However, James was initially trying to escape toward Looney's side when Looney started to get into blocking position. Williams was running toward Looney as if to cut off James. Looney was already committed to the block by the time James reversed course to make Williams less relevant to the play.
There was no penalty on the play. If Looney did not violate a written rule, the question becomes whether he violated an unwritten one by taking out an opponent at the knee when that opponent could not protect himself and probably wasn't going to factor in the play at that point. The idea that an unestablished player such as Looney would unnecessarily take out a six-time Pro Bowl choice at the knee during a preseason game isn't going to sit well with some, even if the play did not violate rules.
I'll update as the situation comes into clearer focus.