OAKLAND -- Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah took a handoff up the middle, skipped by two Raiders defenders and entered Karl Joseph territory.
The Raiders safety raced up to Abdullah, who stumbled on the Oakland Coliseum’s infield dirt as he pushed for extra yards. Joseph angled down to make the stop, dropping his entire body to tackle the opponent. His helmet was to the side to Abdullah’s head, but his helmet did drop naturally.
Joseph thought he made a clean play. Three yellow flags told him otherwise.
Officials believed he violated the NFL’s new helmet rule, designed to prevent players from lowering their helmet and using it to make a hit. A 15-yard penalty comes with the infraction, with a possible ejection depending on severity of the infraction.
It has been a point of confusion and contention this preseason, with an exorbitant volume of infractions levied this preseason. A total of 51 penalties have been called this preseason to enforce the new helmet rule, designed to increase safety and take the head out of the game as much as possible.
Few people disagree with the spirit of the rule. Many have questioned how it is being policed.
The NFL competition committee slightly altered the rule Wednesday, saying inadvertent use of the helmet to make a hit is not a foul. Now the officials have to judge intent within the context of the rule.
There’s no telling if that subtle change wouldn’t impacted the Joseph penalty. He thought it was a clean hit. So did Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
“I actually asked the official right after the play was over,” Guenther said in a Tuesday press conference. “I think sometimes when you hear the collision, it’s just the natural tendency to throw the flag. When you go back and look at the film, you can clearly see his head was to the side and it wasn’t helmet-to-helmet or anything like that. I think someone told me there was 52 of them called in 33 preseason games. So, I understand that you’re trying to make the game safer, and we’re all trying to do that, but at some point, it is football.”
Contact is going to happen. Coaches are preaching to see what you hit, to keep your eyes and therefore the helmet up when making a tackle. There have been plenty of examples, including the Joseph hit, of players being penalized for seemingly clean plays. That has led to concern about what is a penalty.
“I don’t think anyone knows how that’s going to go,” Raiders middle linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “That’s a gray area. All you can do is play by the rules, but it’s going to be hard for the defensive player especially. If you see what you hit, you may be in good favor with the rule. It’s going to be gray, but hopefully it won’t be called so much during the regular season.
That has led many to criticize the rule and its potential impact on games. The penalties hurt. So can the fear of being flagged, if players are worried about form instead of playing instinctual football.
“When you can find the right position so the crown of your helmet won’t be down, you’ll try and do that,” Johnson said. “But you can’t slow down your play. That’s how you get hurt. You have to play fast at all times.”
The new rule doesn’t only impact defenders. Offensive players can be penalized as well, which has led to questions from ball carriers, especially running backs looking to power for extra yards.
“I view myself as a hard-nosed, tough runner,” Raiders running back Doug Martin said. “It’s something that you don’t really think about while you’re playing. If they call it, then you just have to be mindful of it. We’ll see what happens, because there’s a lot of new rules and we’ll see how it goes.”
Raiders coaches have emphasized proper technique this preseason to avoid infractions. They bought a practice equipment designed to aid that process, but things are difficult to avoid when playing at full speed.
“We just try to teach those players to keep the head out, don’t duck the head,” Guenther said. “All you can do as a coach is keep re-going over those things and reassuring these guys to understand what the rules are. But, it’s going to be hard … so, we just have to keep educating the players the best we can.”