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Carolina at Buffalo: Lowering the helmet penalties

The first week of preseason gave us two chances to see this controversial new penalty in action.

In what was surely shocking news to football fans, the NFL made a confusing and unpopular change to the rule book this offseason. Rule 12-2-8 of the NFL’s encyclopedic code of behavior makes “use of the helmet” a punishable offense.

Directly from the manual: “It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” This is the entirety of the rule. Guilty parties face a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down for defensive players. Egregious violations can lead to ejection.

Due to the vague wording of the rule, a fact sheet was distributed to clarify a few things. If you click through to the fact sheet, at the bottom are links to videos produced by the NFL to demonstrate correct form. Fans looking for an answer to the question of “What was he supposed to do?” will want to take a peek.

Before we take a look at how this new rule played out during the Buffalo Bills preseason contest against the Carolina Panthers, a few highlights of the fact sheet should be mentioned. Most importantly, the new rule disregards the point of impact on the “victim” player. The person initiating contact with the helmet can strike them anywhere on the body and the foul should still be called. The rule applies everywhere on the field, and at all times.

For an ejection, a three-prong test was put out for the NFL. If the player initiating contact establishes a “linear body posture,” has an “unobstructed path to his opponent,” and the contact was avoidable with the player having other options; it can lead to disqualification.

Now that our rules primer is out of the way, let’s review the two times this penalty was called between Buffalo and Carolina.

Call one: Jermaine Carter Jr.

A lot of buzz has surrounded this rule and the potential for misapplication. At first glance, you may think the penalty was called on Corn Elder. In the GIF, Elder’s hit is labeled as fringe but close inspection shows he impacts with his shoulder. A similar play was called incorrectly this last week and has caused a lot of outrage on social media. There will be plays like Elder’s that the refs won’t have a great angle on. Expect some miscues. Here though, they got it right. Elder’s tackle is clean and no flag is thrown.

Jermaine Carter on the other hand makes a good case for ejection. His shoulder is never in play. You can see the linear body posture clearly. His path is unobstructed. As Elder is already bringing down the ball carrier, Carter has other options. Such as “don’t tackle,” or “lead with your shoulder”. Most importantly, the linear body posture and lowered head make it impossible for Carter to see his target and possibly correct his course.

You really couldn’t ask for a more perfect play to discuss the new rule. The contrast between the tackles of Elder and Carter show the fine line that players will need to walk. While at times it will be a razor’s edge between legal and illegal hits, the unnecessary Carter hit is exactly what the league is trying to protect players from.

Call two: Julian Stanford

This flag on Julian Stanford is a good lesson on why this new rule is causing some dread. Stanford hasn’t made a “linear body posture” to make contact but does lower his head some. This is the right call based on the rule, but not as egregious as Carter’s.

The big question on this play is what else could Stanford have done? He comes in incredibly low (his knee is nearly touching the ground). Stanford is also making an effort to NOT lower his head and keep his eyes on the runner, Elijah Hood. It could be argued that Hood is the one who created the contact by lowering his head. However, the rule clearly states that it’s the person looking to “initiate” contact that gets the flag. In this case a runner (or a QB on a sneak) is not attempting to initiate contact.

To answer the question, this rule will likely lead to changes in tackling. Stanford would have been better served staying more upright and letting his shoulder do the talking. Make no mistake that this represents a major change. Players will need to adjust.