Defensive players score victory with expanded crack-back protection

Posted Mar 29, 2012

Four additional rule changes implemented by NFL Owners

Fresh off a Pro Bowl season as a rookie, Eric Berry’s sophomore campaign ended after just four snaps.

It was Bills WR Stevie Johnson who laid the vicious crack-back cut block on Berry that resulted in a torn left ACL. Berry’s year was done. More than six months later, he’s still undergoing rehabilitation.

Johnson’s hit was clean, technically.

Shedding downfield cut blocks is nothing new to defensive players, especially safeties. It’s a technique defensive backs and linebackers were taught years before they became NFL players.

Get low. Shoot the hands. Shed the cut. Keep your feet. Make the tackle.

However, just because Johnson’s hit was legal doesn’t make it any less viscous. His hit on Berry fell into an all too common grey area.

Johnson wasn’t fined or penalized, but his decision to chop was widely debated by fans and media.

Drawing criticism for his block, Johnson was forced to defend himself through social media on accusations of taking a cheap shot and being a dirty player. He was still talking about the play this month when Berry wondered via Twitter if a bounty led to his injury.

Johnson vehemently denied the accusation.

In reality, Johnson was taught how to crack and cut well before he arrived in Buffalo, just as Berry had been versed to combat such plays. Johnson later said he didn’t attempt another cut for the remainder of the year after the fallout from ending Berry’s promising second season.

Wide receivers are protected while attempting to catch a pass. Quarterbacks are protected during and after the act of throwing a pass. Returners are protected while in the act of fielding a kick.

When thinking of a “defenseless player,” we’ve been conditioned to think about offense. But through all the measures taken to increase player safety, defenders have long received the short end of the stick.

Crack-back blocks represent some of the most vicious legal plays in football. It’s long been part of the game and its long been the cause of season and career-ending injuries.

Defenders often never see crack-backs coming.

Wednesday’s decision to expand protection from crack-back blocks is a major victory for defensive players.

 “You can’t block him in the head, you can’t block him with your head and you can’t block him low,” Falcons President and NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay explained. “We just think that defensive player is sitting inside, he is getting hit from the side and we saw some hits that we just wanted to make sure people change their aim point and try to hit in the midsection to get the block accomplished.”

Defenders were previously protected only from low crack-back blocks within five yards of the line of scrimmage.

“As that player is defined in the protected zone, all we are doing is taking what was crack-back protection and adding defenseless player protection to him,” said McKay.

Under new rules, flexed players cannot lead with their helmet or lay hits to the head while delivering crack-back blocks.

Berry’s situation, however, remains in the grey area since he was chopped down outside the five-yard protective zone.

Regardless, Wednesday’s decision represents a major victory for defenders that was a long time coming.

Other Rule Changes

  • Outdated Overtime Procedure Booted

NFL Owners made the most logical of all rule changes by blowing up the league’s outdated overtime structure. Moving forward, postseason overtime rules will take effect in the regular season as well.

Whether it’s both teams receiving extra innings at-bats in Major League Baseball, shootouts in the National Hockey League or a shot clock limiting possession time in the National Basketball Association, every major professional sports league provides equal opportunity for teams to win in overtime.

For years, the NFL has been the only major professional sports league to determine an overtime winner without each team receiving a fair opportunity to possess the football. Not anymore.

In overtime, the receiving team can win the game on the first possession only by scoring a touchdown. If the receiving team kicks a field goal, the defending team will gain an offensive possession to either tie the game with a field goal or emerge victorious with a touchdown.

Sudden death ensues if each team has possessed the football without a touchdown being scored. The only exception is if the kicking team records a safety on the first possession of overtime.

  • This Isn’t Soccer

Don’t kick a football unless you’re a kicker or punter. At least don’t do it deliberately.

Doing so has always been a 10-yard penalty.   Illegal kicking now becomes a loss of down as well. This rule change mirrors college football and ensures that the “kicking team” is adequately penalized.

  • Super Bowl Loophole

The New York Giants exposed a loophole with the too many men on the field penalty during the closing minute of this year’s Super Bowl. New York gained no advantage on the play, but they could have.

With 17 seconds remaining and the Patriots facing a 2nd-and-10 from their own 44-yard line, the Giants were flagged for having too many defensive players on the field. New York had a player running to the sideline that was still on the field of play when the ball was snapped.

Several seconds ran off the clock and the Giants were penalized five yards. New England continued its comeback bid on the next snap.

While the Giants didn’t intentionally expose a rule loophole, the play showed an obvious need for updating.

New York could have played with an extra man on the field for an added defensive advantage while only sacrificing a five-yard penalty. Time would have continued to run off the clock. The rule is now impossible to expose.

Having too many men on the field is now a dead ball foul. It mirrors the college game.

  • Turnovers Trigger Reviews

Like scoring plays, all turnovers will be reviewed by the booth official. If the referee is signaled by the booth, replay analysis will be initiated. This rule change gives coaches more flexibility in the use of their challenge flags.

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