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NFL Tacklers Grapple with League's Ever-Shrinking Strike Zone has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

Copyright 2013 Journal Sentinel Inc.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
October 24, 2013 Thursday
Early Edition
P Packer Plus; Pg. 5
792 words
Should tacklers hit high, low or neither? | Anti-concussion measures lead to unintended results
MICHAEL LEV Orange County Register, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Packer Plus (Milwaukee, WI)

Afascinating scene played out in the second quarter of Green Bay's game at Baltimore on Oct. 13.

As Packer receiver Randall Cobb lay on the turf, the victim of a low hit by Ravens rookie safety Matt Elam, Cobb's quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, got in Elam's face. The other safety, James Ihedigbo, intervened, and a relatively civil discussion ensued. Ihedigbo reminded Rodgers that defenders no longer are allowed to hit receivers high. The natural adjustment to that is to go low.

That's not what the NFL wants, but that's where we're at right now: Defensive players, trained to tackle a certain way all their lives, are struggling to adjust to the league's evershrinking strike zone.

Elam's hit, which fractured Cobb's fibula, wasn't illegal. Was it ethical? Rodgers obviously didn't think so. The Ravens, including coach John Harbaugh, disagreed. Like every play in football, it happened in a split second. Defensive players argue that it's nearly impossible to be as precise as the NFL wants them to be when the target is moving and moving fast.

San Francisco safety Donte Whitner incurred a $21,000 fine for a blow to the head of "defenseless" St. Louis receiver Chris Givens in Week 4. Whitner said he was aiming for Givens' midsection but ended up striking him in the face mask when Givens tumbled backward while trying to catch the ball.

Whitner subsequently filed paperwork to change his name from Whitner to Hitner - an act he calls "my form of protest without getting in trouble." He is asked if his position, safety, is harder to play now than, say, five years ago. "I don't think it's harder. I just think there's a little uncertainty," Whitner said outside the 49ers' locker room after a recent home game. "You don't know what you're going to get in trouble for or what you're going to get flagged for."

Just as Rodgers and the Ravens differed on the Cobb hit, there's a general disconnect between the NFL and its players regarding the acceptable limits of physical contact. With the concussion crisis raging, the league wants to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, blows to the head. Even the players whose job it is to inflict pain understand that it's the right thing to do.

But as mentioned, if you're a safety or linebacker or any defender, your job is to prevent quarterbacks and receivers from completing passes. In lieu of batting down or intercepting the ball, the best way to achieve that objective is to hit the would-be pass catcher as hard as humanly possible.

"If I get a chance, a hit presents itself, I'm going to take it," said veteran Houston safety Danieal Manning, who landed on season-ending injured reserve last week because of a knee injury.

"I'm not going out here maliciously hitting people. But if a guy is catching a ball, and I have him lined (up), dead to rights, I'm going to try to smoke him. That's the way you're supposed to jar the ball loose."

Whitner echoed Manning's sentiment about not trying to hurt anyone; the last thing any player wants is to cause one of his peers to miss time or suffer a season-or careerending injury. But Whitner said receivers have told him they would rather be hit in the head than the knees. That seems to be the prevailing opinion around the league, despite the information that's emerging about the possible long-term ramifications of head injuries.

"I understand why they're going this direction, but I don't like it," Whitner said of the NFL's efforts to protect offensive players. "There's not too many players around the NFL that like it."

Former NFL coach and player Herman Edwards supports the league's initiative. Not only is it important to protect players, Edwards said, but the NFL can set an example for the next wave of safeties and linebackers.

Yet, Edwards, who played cornerback for 10 pro seasons, sees the issue from a defensive back's point of view, too.

"You want to put fear in a man's brain," said Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. "If I catch this ball in front of this guy, there's some consequences, so how bad do I want to catch this ball? If those consequences no longer apply, it's a lot easier. "There was always a fear factor that you had as your ace card as a defender. There's a different tone now."

As Whitner said after being fined, the game is changing. Is it changing for the better? It all depends on your perspective.

The sport is becoming safer. Points are up. The Denver-Dallas game in Week 5 was the fourth-highest-scoring game in NFL history. Entertaining stuff, right?

"No," Manning said sternly, "it's not."

Copyright 2013, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

Copyright, 2013, Journal Sentinel, All Rights Reserved.

October 24, 2013

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