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Do the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger Have a Point with the Patriots Defensive Shift?

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Did the Patriots break any rules when they forced a false start on the goal line?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers think the New England Patriots should have been called for a penalty early in the fourth quarter for a shift on the goal line that drew a false start from two Steelers linemen.

"I thought that there was a rule against that," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the game, via USA Today's Tom Pelissero. "Maybe there's not. Maybe it's just an unwritten rule."

Fortunately for the Patriots, illegal shift penalties only really apply to the offense. But do the Steelers have an argument?

Well, this is exactly what gets the Patriots into trouble with the public, fairly or not. The rule book states the following under Unsportsmanlike Conduct.

SECTION 3 UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT

ARTICLE 1. PROHIBITED ACTS. There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others:

(j) Using acts or words by the defensive team that are designed to disconcert an offensive team at the snap. An official must blow his whistle immediately to stop play.

This is a broad enough definition that could imply that defenses aren't allowed to do any sort of motions or faux blitzes because they could be considered an "act...designed to disconcert an offensive team at the snap." In fact, using the term disconcert probably classifies this as the wimpiest sounding rule in the NFL.

Does the Patriots act of sliding every defensive lineman towards the Steelers left guard count as an attempt at disconcerting an offensive team at the snap? Yeah, definitely. The NFL actually sent out a memo in 2011 (hooray for memos) telling teams to stop mimicking the cadences of opposing quarterbacks to draw the offensive line into a false start situation.

It probably doesn't help that Bill Belichick has commented on intentionally drawing penalties on the goal line.

This rule is clearly a judgment call by the official and leads to the question of what act would violate this rule?

The Patriots argument (for full disclosure, I don't think they deserved a penalty) is that defensive shifts are totally legal and if the shift happened anywhere other than the goal line by a non-Patriots team, no one would be thinking twice about it. The Patriots didn't jump into the neutral zone. No one is alleging that the defensive line tried to call out Roethlisberger's cadence.

Also, the following is categorized under Unsportsmanlike Conduct, too:

(l) Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents, including lingering by players leaving the field after being replaced by a substitute. See 5-2.

Sound familiar to a Patriots tactic against another AFC North opponent?

The rule book effectively states don't try to confuse the opponent prior to the snap, which is a load of poppycock. No one listens to that. The point of having multiple defensive schemes is to try and lull the opposition into a sense of security to draw an unforced error from the quarterback.

Where is the line? When is it crossed? What the heck constitutes an act that would violate the rule?

Just one of many questions left unanswered by the convoluted NFL rule book.