Jared Allen and the Minnesota Vikings had Andrew Luck on the run, with nowhere to throw and nowhere to go on third-and-16.
With Indianapolis leading by 11 points early in the third quarter, this was an important moment, with the Vikings in need of a momentum shift. The punt never came, though, because Allen was penalized for a late hit after lunging to tackle Luck by the ankles after he was fully across the sideline.
The Colts kicked a field goal on that drive and eventually won 23-20. Afterward, Allen was insistent he did no wrong, blaming the replacement official for what he exclaimed then was a bad call. On Thursday, the All-Pro defensive end came closer to acknowledging his mistake, which clearly appeared to be a foul on television replays. But the sequence was another example of the challenge pass rushers face in this era of protected quarterbacks, and Allen refused to relent.
"In the scheme of things, it (stinks) to get the personal foul. You've got to own that. Especially when it costs you a field goal," Allen said. "But I'm not going to stop chasing guys out of bounds, and if I feel like I can get a piece of them on the way out I'm going to do it."
Allen had 22 sacks last season, none yet this year. Though he regularly lists the quarterback takedowns he believed he should've had after every game, with a photographic-like memory of the plays, Allen said his pursuit of Luck wasn't accelerated by the desire to get his first sack of 2012. He claimed Luck had already crossed the line of scrimmage when he reached the boundary.
"If that's a running back, they probably don't call it," Allen said, insinuating that the official's ruling was influenced by the fact that the play occurred on the Indianapolis sideline where coaches and players immediately screamed for a flag on the prized rookie. He also noted he began his dive when Luck was still in bounds.
The NFL has tried to make the fast-moving, hard-hitting game safer for quarterbacks with several protective rules added over the last few decades. The speed at which defensive linemen and linebackers must pursue those sacks before the ball is thrown can make avoidance of contact nearly impossible. To slow up at the last second is to lose the edge often required to finish the play, risking that the opponent will take advantage and get the big gain instead.
How do they find that balance?
"I guess you find out when they throw the flag. I've always said as the rules change, I keep playing. I'm not a dirty player. I play hard. I'm going to hit people when I can hit ‘em," Allen said.
Allen recalled the game in 2006 when a New York Giants defender had Tennessee quarterback Vince Young in his grasp but released his grip and let Young escape for a first down.
"I'm not going to take the chance of a guy turning the corner," Allen said.
No matter how fast a player might be in pursuit, though, consciousness is always key. Particularly from the coach's viewpoint, trying to avoid those painful game-changing penalties.
"I liked the effort. I like what he was trying to get accomplished," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. "But just have a little awareness of where you are on the field, and probably have to pull up in that situation."
Allen hasn't made four Pro Bowls by letting up, though, and therein lies the complication of the situation.
The Vikings have four sacks over the first two games and have applied consistent quarterback pressure, but there were plays in Sunday's game when Luck quickly fired the ball for a critical completion. Both Allen and fellow defensive end Brian Robison are seeking that first sack.
"I go back and watch, and I have him in my hands, and I've just got to get him on the ground," Allen said. "B-Rob has him in his hands in the end zone, and we've got to get him on the ground. Credit Andrew Luck, he was way more elusive than we saw on tape."
Jared Allen won't change his style
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