When Michael Bennett first made contact with Kirk Cousins, he hit the Vikings quarterback in the one area in which there is no need for padding – his butt.
But that was not how the nearby official, who flagged Bennett for roughing the passer, saw the would-be sack. And when head referee Walt Coleman was asked by a pool reporter after the game what the Eagles defensive end had done wrong, he only mentioned Cousins' knees.
"He went low into the quarterback's knees with his shoulder, with force," Coleman said. "And the rule is that you cannot hit the quarterback low at the knee area or below with force. He got him there with his shoulder."
Bennett did graze Cousins' knees, but only after he slid down the backside of the quarterback. He wrapped him up at the ankles and Cousins bent over and sat on Bennett – as if he were a chair – before getting flipped over to the ground. It was about as soft a landing as could be expected.
"What's he supposed to do, let him go? It wasn't like he was putting him in danger," Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. "That call can change a game."
>> GRADE THE EAGLES: No one for Birds to blame but themselves | Paul Domowitch
>> SOCIAL MEDIA ROUNDUP: Big-guy touchdown, Jalen Mills hate, and look what happened to the Giants
It's easy to look at the Eagles' 23-21 loss Sunday and the points the Vikings were seemingly gifted before the half when Bennett's sack was ruled a 15-yard penalty and conclude that the game was lost there. But that would be a faulty reasoning.
The Eagles could have stopped Minnesota on their next two plays, but didn't and surrendered a touchdown. They could have blocked and protected the ball better on offense. They could have tackled, rushed, and covered better on defense. And coach Doug Pederson could have called a better game.
But it was a difficult call for the Eagles to accept because Bennett had seemingly done everything he could to bring Cousins down within rules that are increasingly enforced to protect quarterbacks. The sack would have put the Vikings in third-and-14 on the Eagles' 31 – a scenario that likely would have led to only a field goal and a 13-3 margin at the half rather than 17-3.
"I know they don't want low hits on the quarterback, but if you're falling down I guess you're just supposed to let the quarterback go," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "The explanation from the official was he has to avoid that hit, which means he can't do his job."
Bennett didn't have anything to say after the game. A throng of reporters encircled his locker stall, but he dipped through and didn't respond to a request for comment as he walked out. Pederson was diplomatic in his response.
"Those are hard situations," Pederson said. "I'm going to look at the TV copy and I'll look at obviously the coach's tape briefly and see. But it's tough. Unfortunate. The rule's the rule and we've got to abide by it."
>> PHOTOS: Scenes from the sidelines at Eagles-Vikings
The rule as it was interpreted is one that has been in the rulebook for some time, Coleman said. Under "Roughing the Passer" — Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9 – it states that "a rushing defender is prohibited from forcibly hitting in the knee area or below a passer who has one or both feet on the ground, even if the initial contact is above the knee.
"It is not a foul is the defender is blocked (or fouled) into the passer and has no opportunity to avoid him."
Bennett didn't get blocked into Cousins. He beat tight end Kyle Rudolph with a power edge rush, but as he neared the quarterback he started to fall. He lunged forward, making contact first with his helmet and shoulder at Cousins' rear area and wrapped his arms around his knees.
He slid down his calves, held on at his ankles, and tossed him over. As far as tackles go, it was rather tame. Bennett pleaded his case, and after the extra point, Jenkins had a conversation with an official. But a lot of the complaints coming from defenders in recent years have apparently fallen on deaf ears.
A new roughing-the-passer rule, which penalizes a defender for landing on a quarterback with his full weight, has been even more controversial than the decreasing strike zone in which rushers can hit quarterbacks. The Dolphins' William Hayes said that he suffered a season-ending knee injury by trying to avoid landing on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr with full force.
"It's hard enough getting a quarterback down," Long said. "It's hard to hit him in a perfect spot and then not land on him."
Long wasn't the only Eagles defensive lineman frustrated by the call and the rules. Fletcher Cox called the penalty on Bennett a "bad call." Brandon Graham said he couldn't explain how he can be expected to follow the rules when rushing at full speed.
But all three stressed that they must adjust to the new rules and that the outcome didn't hinge on that one play.
"I think it's no excuse. The biggest thing is we got to adjust to it," Cox said. "They got a good one, a huge momentum swing for them, but we just got to line up and play the next play."
Cousins got the ball out quick, and he was hit 11 times. But he was sacked only once. Long missed an opportunity earlier in the drive when he had Cousins in his sights. But he jumped and Cousins ran and converted the short third down with a pass.
The rules can be confusing, but the Eagles still must finish.
"I think they just lack common sense," Jenkins said of the rules. "I get it, we want to protect quarterbacks, and I completely understand that. They're the lifeblood to our game. But it's really hard to do a job and it's having an effect on some games.
"But we had plenty of other opportunities to win the game."