When the Broncos lined up on offense to start the overtime session against the Steelers this past weekend, Denver's offensive coordinator dialed up a play action pass that totally fooled the Pittsburgh defense. Pittsburgh's defenders were arrayed in an "Inverted Cover 2" formation and the safeties bit hard on the play fake. Tim Tebow took the snap in a shotgun formation, faked a hand off and then whistled a pass to Demaryius Thomas, who was running a post pattern. Thomas stiff-armed cornerback Ike Taylor and then exploded up the far sideline for the score.
The game-winning play was devastatingly effective. But was it legal?
As the eagle-eyed Daniel Willis of the Bay Area News Group noted, the Broncos appeared to have just six men lined up on the line of scrimmage when the play was snapped instead of the seven required by NFL rules. At the left edge of the offensive line, a Broncos player was lined up a step behind the teammates to his right and therefore not toeing the line of scrimmage.
According to the NFL Rule 7, Section 5, Article 1 which governs the position of offensive players at the snap"
The offensive team must be in compliance with the following at the snap:
(a) It must have seven or more players on its line (3-18); and
(b) All players who are not on the line, other than the receiver of the snap under center, must be at least
one yard behind it.
(c) No player may be out of bounds.
Despite the fact that tight end Dante Rosario appeared to not be on the line of scrimmage but not at least one yard off the line, no whistles were blown or yellow penalty flags thrown. The rest, as they say, is history. Tebow threw the game-winning pass to Thomas as he came open across the center of the park into all the space vacated by the safeties aggressively playing the run. Willis' article was brought to the attention of former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira, currently a rules analyst for FOX, who addressed the play on Twitter.
With Pereira's tweet in mind, Chris Chase of Shutdown Corner, Yahoo! Sports' indispensable NFL blog, went back and looked at every other touchdown from the four Wild Card games. Chase reports that no other touchdown play featured a formation without at least seven men on the line of scrimmage.
Hoping to end discussion of the play, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello spoke with Dan Hanzus of NFL.com on Tuesday. According to Aiello, "There is nothing to this. This is a legal formation. This should not have been flagged."
Aiello's insistence that the formation was legal doesn't exactly fit with Pereira's stance that officials aren't always technical with this rule. While this debate makes for great fodder for fans and media members, the players on the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't seem the least bit interested in hearing about the play that ended their season -- legal or not.
"That's not going to give us the win and send us to New England," Steelers cornerback William Gay told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "They scored a touchdown bottom line. Their receiver made a good play."
Photos from the Broncos-Steelers game