Some NFL defenders are wondering when the league is going to crack down on infractions they see as equally deserving of suspensions as helmet hits, particularly illegal blocks that go on in the trenches.
There’s the chop block, when a player blocks a defender low while he’s engaged above the waist with another offensive player, and the cut block, where an offensive player dives at the defender’s feet and ankles rather than his upper body.
Cut blocks are mainly legal in the open field where the defender can hurdle the offensive player but not at the line of scrimmage, where the tactic is particularly dangerous, sometimes causing career-threatening injuries.
These infractions draw flags and fines when noticed — but that’s not nearly often enough, some defenders complain. And in light of the league’s crackdown this week on helmet hits, they’re calling for the NFL to protect them, too.
“I think they are headed in the right way of protecting players, but at the same time, where’s the protection for the defensive players?” Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Barnett said.
Some players say the NFL simply doesn’t value defense as much as it should.
Just look at all the rule changes over the years that were designed to protect quarterbacks and receivers, suggested Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy: “Our league, every year they come in with new rules and it always seems like there’s 15 rules for the offense and then one rule that might get put in for the defense.”
“It’s an offensive league. That’s what it’s changing into,” Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “You can’t hit a guy with your forearms, can’t hit with your shoulder pads, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I guess the people at the top are offensive guys.”
The NFL cracked down on illegal hits following three tackles from last week’s games that led to huge fines. The league warned players that starting this weekend, even first-time offenders will be subject to suspensions for delivering flagrant hits to the head and neck area of defenseless opponents.
Players say they understand the need for safety but some suggested this escalation in punishment might ultimately have a detrimental effect on a game that is, after all, predicated on collisions.
“They’re making the game soft,” Denver defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson said. “That’s really what it’s doing: it’s making more guys timid on the point of attack. I understand about helmet-to-helmet, player safety, but at the same time, you’ve got defensive guys tentative on the attack. That’s all it’s doing. It’s another advantage for the offense.
“Already, they protect the quarterback, they protect receivers. O-linemen chop-block you, and they don’t want to do anything about that, to protect the knees and all that. It’s all offense. You want to talk about rules, we should look at the whole game and make the rules fit everybody instead of one side of the ball.”
Vickerson speaks from experience. He missed most of his rookie year in Tennessee in 2007 with a torn ACL, the result of a chop block.
“All the rules are really set up for offensive guys,” Vickerson said. “Rules for going after the quarterback’s knees should be the same for defensive linemen. You’re taking years off a man’s career.”
Defensive players argue that illegal hits on D-linemen and linebackers are common and dangerous but too often overlooked by officials, disregarded by fans and ignored by the league.
“I always see my big men getting high-lowed, pinned up and hit in the leg. That’s just as dangerous as hitting somebody in the head,” Miami linebacker Channing Crowder said. “… Shots to the knees, you can’t play with no more knees.”
Barnett, who’s sidelined with a wrist injury, said defensive players are just as vulnerable as offensive players and are often the ones bearing the brunt of both the hard hits and the league’s wrath when things go wrong.
“We have to protect ourselves. When running backs come through the hole, they’re not running with their head up. Their head is straight down, they’re trying to truck you. Are we going to address that?” he asked. “How are we supposed to hit them when they’ve got their head down?”
Barnett suggested the crackdown on helmet hits will tilt the game even more toward the offense’s favor.
“I think the worst thing they should work on is cut blocks. How many people have lost their knees, ankles, thousands of things like that?” Barnett said. “I think the offense gains an advantage from the head contact (emphasis).”
One of the league’s notoriously nasty hitters, Broncos eight-time Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins, said before the season began that the league’s rules tweakers will always favor the offensive side of the ball because more fans want to see big plays than big hits.
“I mean, they’ll say like Ray Lewis is a great defensive player, but how many points does he score?” Dawkins said. “Money, baby. They want to see touchdowns. They want to see celebrations in the end zone. The fans do. They don’t want to see 6-3 games. They want to see big plays, big runs, so they’ve more and more and more and more kind of put our hands behind our backs as defensive players.”
On Friday, Dawkins called the league’s crackdown on helmet hits “ridiculous” because it’s hard to avoid them with moving targets dipping and ducking a split-second before impact.
His teammate, defensive end Jason Hunter, said it might take some devastating knee injuries for the league to crack down on the illegal blocks like they have on the helmet hits.
“All I can say is I hope they will look at that and also take that as serious as helmet-to-helmet hits because you’re dealing with guys’ knees and lower extremities,” Hunter said.
AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., Andrew Seligman in Chicago, Tim Booth in Seattle, Steven Wine in Miami and Jon Krawczynski in Eden Prairie, Minn. and AP freelancer Todd McMahon in Green Bay contributed to this story.