HOUSTON -- In two preseason games, the 49ers have been penalized three times under the new NFL rule that prohibits any player from lowering his head to initiate contact with the helmet.
Around the league, there appear to be different interpretations of the rule being enforced by different officiating crews through two weeks of the exhibition season. Count 49ers Kyle Shanahan among those who is not sure what defines a penalty.
“We’re all still trying to figure it out,” Shanahan said following the 49ers' game Saturday night against the Houston Texans. “We’ll see how it goes.”
In the exhibition opener, 49ers linebacker Elijah Lee was penalized for a tackle on Dallas running back Bo Scarbrough. Lee appeared to use his shoulder and helmet to make simultaneous contact with the back of Scarbrough, as he turned away from contact.
Lee told NBC Sports Bay Area that not only was he not fined for the play, but the NFL informed a representative of his that referee Ron Torbert’s crew incorrectly threw a flag.
While the three penalties called on the 49ers surprised the three players flagged for infractions, Lee said he understands the purpose behind the rule. He said he is determined to improve his technique to keep his head out of tackling as much as possible.
“It shouldn’t have been a penalty, so it makes me feel a lot better to know that,” Lee said of the play on which he was penalized. “But at the same time, I watched the play, and I do have to keep my head up. I have to keep playing safer and practicing to keep playing safer.”
On Saturday, the 49ers were called for two more questionable interpretations of the rule from referee Walt Anderson’s crew.
Raheem Mostert, who was the gunner on the left side on a punt, lowered his body as he approached Houston return man Tyler Ervin. Mostert appeared to turn to avoid a direct helmet hit on Ervin but might have made glancing helmet contact with the arm in which Ervin was holding the ball after fielding the punt.
“They said it was bad form, but I thought it was good technique by me,” Mostert said. “But I got to go look at the film. I know I tried to keep my head up, but I got to go check out the film.
“It is tough, but that’s why we have film, so we can go watch it and learn from that.”
Defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu was called for unnecessary roughness, lowering his helmet to initiate contact while rushing the passer against Texans right tackle Chad Slade. But Attaochu appeared to extend his arms first. He appeared to initiate contact with his hands before any his helmet made contact with Slade's helmet.
“I had no idea, actually,” Attaochu said. “I just tried to put my hands on his chest and turn into him, trying to stay underneath him. I didn’t understand it.”
Taking the helmet out of tackling has been a major emphasis for the NFL as a safety issue. And there are almost certain to be more complications and controversy as officiating crews must make important and, in some cases, game-changing calls in a split-second.
“It’s whatever they call it, and at the end of the day, we can’t argue with what they call,” Lee said. “I guess we’ll see after we get out of the preseason if they change or how it will change or how it will effect us.
“At the same time, you can’t play hesitant because a big play might happen for the offense. You just got play your game and hope it’s not a penalty.”