Preseason is always exciting, but there’s something slightly more polarizing this time around. The NFL’s new ‘helmet rule’, designed to reduce exposure to concussions has caused quite the stir. Penalties have been called across the NFL that have left everyone and their pet Dog screaming in confusion, wondering how a defensive player is meant to tackle with the new boundaries that have been set. The Eagles are no exception, picking up four of these penalties in just two games.
“The instructions we’ve given guys is try not to lower your head and try to take your head out of it.” Defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, told reporters on Monday. “And I think our guys are trying to do that. The other thing we say is you want to lower your target, but along with lowering the target and trying to say away from the head, sometimes that causes you to dip your head.
I think I can confidently say we don’t have any players that are trying to play outside of the bounds. We don’t have any guys that are ‘head hunting,’ that are being selfish. They’re trying to play within the rules. I think you can see [LB] Nigel’s [Bradham] play. He’s trying to get his head out. I think even [S] Rodney’s [McLeod] play he’s trying get his head out across and get it out. The problem is they’re dealing with world-class athletes who are moving targets. A little bit easier said than done. Those fouls have hurt us in these first couple pre-season games and we just got to get to a point where they don’t hurt us in the regular season.”
The new landscape is clearly a dilemma for coaches, especially those on a defense that plays as tenacious as possible, imposing their will on an offense. Can you fundamentally change the way that you teach your defense to tackle, without losing those core values?
“We need to do our best to avoid penalties.” Schwartz explained. “Some are going to happen. Nobody is trying get a face mask, but sometimes you reach out and that’s the first thing you grab. The feedback is good coming from other teams, coming from the directional league, coming from the officiating department. We need it to settle down.”
Settling it down is one thing, but as we saw in the game against the Patriots, the rule unfortunately brings with it a tactical minefield. The NFL is a business, a dog-eat-dog one at that. If there is any legal way to gain an advantage, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be exploited to its maximum potential.
The teams who succeed the most this season will be defenses who can mold and adapt around that rule. Which units can install discipline into tackling when the game is on the line? There would be nothing worse than having 2:00 left on the clock, the game tied and a defense making a panic induced mistake that cost a the team a field goal.
This brings the offense into play and a new tactical aspect. If a ball-carrier lowers his head and can manipulate the hit to look like the defensive helmet was lowered first, this rule will become a way for the offense to gain from defensive instincts being restricted, not a safety precaution. Just as cornerbacks will use trash-talk to get into the heads of wideouts, there is no reason why offensive players across the board wouldn’t do the same in order to ‘flick that switch’ in a defensive player’s head, igniting that killer instinct.
The Eagles are a team that thrive on big hits and an aggressive mentality. A team whose defensive identity is one of ruthlessness and ferocity. That will be played on by offenses across the league and Jim Schwartz has an almighty task in trying to find ways to limit the damage that this rule is bound to inflict.
Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports