Two months later, some vindication for Giovani Bernard.
But two months is too late for Bernard's Cincinnati Bengals, who were ousted from the playoffs thanks in part to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier's devastating hit on the running back. Instantly concussed, Bernard fumbled before he hit the ground, resulting in a turnover that stalled a promising Bengals drive late in their eventual 18-16 loss.
During the NFL owners meetings Monday, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told reporters hits like Shazier's blindside, helmet-to-helmet blow would now be illegal.
Under the new interpretation, Bernard would have been credited for a catch and Shazier would have been penalized.
"We looked at it and we looked at a lot of plays that involved potential crown-to-the-helmet hits, and the way the rule was put in, there was some concern that we were going to have a real spike in penalties," Blandino said. "It didn't play out that way because the directions to game officials were very specific in three elements for that rule. We have to line up your opponent, lower the head and then use the crown of the helmet to make forceful contact. So it really had to be two players moving in the same direction."
The week after the game, Blandino explained in a video that because Bernard had turned his body in the same direction as Shazier a split second before the hit, he had established himself as a runner. The players were angled perfectly for it to be a legal hit, Blandino said. But that explanation negated the fact that Bernard was practically blindsided, having caught a screen pass in the same motion when he was turning upfield just ahead of Shazier's bang-bang hit.
"If there were angles involved, it wasn't a foul," Blandino explained Monday. "[But] we look at that hit, that's not a technique that we want in the game. So we're changing the interpretation of that rule; whereas for the defensive player, it's not about angles, it's about lowering the head and using the crown of the helmet. So outside of the tackle box, really, that hit will become a foul -- forceful contact, clear crown, regardless of whether there's angles involved for the defensive player.
"We still feel that the offensive player, the runner, in many instances is not being able to protect himself, so we want to see that line up for the runner."
The play in question came with 1:43 remaining in the third quarter. The Bengals, trailing 15-0, were in the middle of a nine-play, 57-yard drive when Bernard caught a third-down pass in the flat. At the very least, the Bengals would have attempted to end the drive with a field goal. But just after Bernard made the catch, Shazier delivered the hit. As Bernard momentarily laid motionless on the field, his teammates ran out to Shazier to challenge the defender for what they deemed a dirty hit.
A quarter later, with less than two minutes left in the game, a one-point Bengals lead evaporated when running back Jeremy Hill fumbled, unexpectedly giving Pittsburgh late life. A pair of 15-yard Bengals penalties on the ensuing drive put the Steelers in range for a 35-yard field goal. Going through with 18 seconds left, the kick proved to be the game winner.