Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said the NFL is "getting soft" after he was whistled for a third roughing-the-passer penalty this season, while the league took the unusual step of expressing immediate support for the call in the latest instance of the controversial effort to protect quarterbacks this season.
"Unfortunately this league's going in a direction I think a lot of people don't like. I think they're getting soft," Matthews said. "The only thing hard about this league is the fines they levy down on guys like me who play the game hard."
Referee Craig Wrolstad penalized Matthews for landing on Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith late in the third quarter of a 31-17 Packers loss at FedEx Field. In a tweet sent shortly thereafter with video of the play, the NFL cited Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b) in justifying Wrolstad's decision.
This is a foul for roughing the passer - the defender lands "with all or most of the defender's weight" on the passer. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b): https://t.co/s9YKN8NLuT #GBvsWAS pic.twitter.com/ei2QZkvvzx— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) September 23, 2018
Among other specifications, that rule prohibits players from falling with all or most of their body weight on quarterbacks. The NFL made it a point of emphasis for this season, in part because Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone last season on a similar hit.
"Obviously when you're tackling a guy from the front you're gonna land on him," Matthews said after the game of his penalized hit on Smith. "I understand the spirit of the rule, I said that weeks prior. But when you have a hit like that, that's a football play.
"I even went up to Alex Smith after the game, asked him, 'What do you think? What can I do differently?' Because that's a football play."
There were an NFL-record 21 roughing-the-passer penalties through the first two weeks of the 2018 season. Matthews is the first NFL player since at least 2001 to be penalized three times for roughing the passer in the first three games of a season. He entered 2018 with a total of four roughing penalties in his 10-year career.
He expressed "disbelief" in how the rule has evolved and said he "would like to see football be football."
"I respect the rule, I just think they're going in the wrong direction with this," he said.
In Week 2, a roughing penalty against Matthews wiped out a Packers interception that would have clinched a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The game ended in a tie. Afterward, Matthews joined many other players in saying they do not know how to avoid landing on quarterbacks in some instances.
After the Redskins game, Matthews said the way he's been tackling for his entire career was no longer acceptable and suggested he might have to target the ball rather than the man.
"I'm just going to keep playing hard," he said. "Maybe now, pass-rushers and guys getting after the quarterback, you just have to attack the ball.
"I've been playing this game for over 20 years, that's how you tackle. So we'll see. I mean something's got to change because the league's not. These are big plays, and like I said last week, these are big plays.
"So, disappointed. I tried to change from last week and still get the flag. It's unfortunate."
Wrolstad told a pool reporter that Matthews could have done more to avoid the flag.
"If you've got a shoulder into him and then landed on him with most of his body weight off him or released him when he went down, then he would have been OK," the referee said. "But in my judgement, I ruled that he landed on him with most or all of his body weight there."
Wrolstad also said each play is examined individually, and that Matthews' status as a repeat offender this season had no bearing on his decision.
The controversy over Matthews' hit gained further fuel because Redksins lineman Daron Payne threw Rodgers to the turf Sunday but was not whistled for a roughing penalty.
Rodgers discussed the play with Wrolstad and later said the referee told him he "couldn't see through the 14 guys something to that effect."
"I said, 'I'm not asking for a call here. But I'm wondering if you felt like he slammed me on my head or not.' He said, 'No, I didn't see it,'" Rodgers said.
Asked about the Payne hit after the game, Wrolstad said he was unsure to which play was being referred.
Matthews, though, said that play made it difficult to define a "good hit" when compared to his penalty.
"Was that the one where Aaron got suplexed?" he said. "You know what, I watched that on the sideline and said, 'How come that's not a flag?,' We're talking about -- hey, let's be honest -- we're talking about the MVP quarterback gets suplexed, that's a good hit? But me, I put 250 pounds on a quarterback the right way, and here comes a flag."
ESPN's Kevin Seifert and Rob Demovsky contributed to this report.