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What is a Defender Supposed to Do?

What is a Defender Supposed to Do?

Bears linebacker Jon Bostic was the latest victim of Roger Goodell and the NFL’s mission to stomp out clean, violent hits in the game. Bostic, a rookie, was recently fined $21,000 by the NFL for his hit on Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie in a contest last Thursday night.

In the game, San Diego ran a flanker screen to Willie, but neglected to send a blocker. Bostic, who diagnosed the play immediately, laid out Willie with a crushing blow he never saw coming. The announcer’s reaction was classic. The Bears’ home crowd responded like they should have  — with a thunderous roar. However, to no ones surprise, the NFL saw it differently.

It’s getting to the point where every time a defender makes a hard tackle, the result is a 15-yard penalty, a fine, or, the worse case scenario, a suspension. Helmet-to-helmet contact is no longer required for a player to receive punishment. If a defensive player hits an offensive player hard enough, chances are the helmet of the player receiving the hit is going to snap back, that’s just physics. And that’s exactly what happened when Bostic leveled Mike Willie. If you haven’t seen the play, Bostic, completely unblocked, leads with his shoulder and drills Willie with enough force to lift him off the ground, causing a head snap. The head snap is a direct result of the power and the angle Bostic took on the play, not helmet-to-helmet contact. You could make the argument that the crown of Bostic’s helmet made contact with Willie’s facemask, but when a player is running full speed and has been taught his entire life to keep his head elevated to protect himself from injuring his own neck, the tactic is understandable. It’s hard to break old habits.

Hitting a defenseless receiver was the other reason the NFL gave for fining Bostic; which is even more ridiculous. What is Bostic supposed to do? Slowly jog over to Willie? Grab him by the waist and gently place him on the ground? This is football. If anything, the Chargers should be fined for running a horribly designed flanker screen that left Willie susceptible to such a hit.

The NFL has been clear on how they want defenders to tackle: square up, hit the player in the numbers, and drive through the ball carrier. That’s all well and good, but is it feasible? Can a 250-pound linebacker running full speed process all those elements in a matter of seconds? And is it fair that coaches don’t have the ability to challenge 15-yard penalties when a hit is clean but is called illegal on the field? I think the answer is clear.

The rule changes the NFL has implemented regarding how defensive players are allowed to hit offensive players is making it challenging for them to execute tackles on the field. It’s also created a whole new set of problems. Falcon’s tight end Tony Gonzalez stated publicly he was against Texans safety D.J. Swearinger’s season-ending hit on Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller. Gonzalez blamed the NFL’s recent rule changes as a cause of the injury, and here’s why: since defenders can no longer hit high — and are forced to now target the legs and knees of a ball carrier — the likelihood of season-ending and possibly career-ending knee injuries are certainly going to rise. Gonzalez does have a point, but a defenders’ target zone has now been limited to the area between the waist and the hips, which is proper technique, but hard to execute on a consistent bases given the speed of the game.

Defenders are now at the risk of being painted as dirty players for hitting ball carriers low, or face the possibility of fines, suspensions and penalties on the field for hitting high. So, what’s the answer? Coaches are either going to have to retrain their players on how to tackle under the NFL’s new policies (which, I might add, will be hard to accomplish, since full-padded practices are no longer allowed throughout the regular season) or, attack a ball carrier with less aggressiveness and leave the opportunity for him to escape the tackle. Either way, I think it’s clear defenses and tacklers are now at a distinct disadvantage.

And that’s exactly how the NFL wants it.