It was an uneven night for the NFL in its first taste of the revised rule intending to take the helmet out of tackles.
In all, four penalties were called under the revised rule in Thursday night’s Hall of Fame Game preseason-opening 17-16 victory for the Baltimore Ravens over the Chicago Bears. While the first two calls were clear violations, the following two were less obvious and highlighted the difficulties that might come in enforcing the rule in 2018.
The first instance took place fewer than five minutes into the game.
With 10:31 left in the first quarter, Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor was flagged 15 yards for a personal foul for leading with his helmet. In the play, Onwuasor lowered his head as he lunged into Bears running back Benny Cunningham, while Cunningham was being brought down by Ravens linebacker Anthony Levine.
The second time it was the Ravens again, when linebacker Kamalei Correa led with his helmet to tackle Bears receiver Tanner Gentry early in the third quarter.
Just a few minutes later, the Bears were called for a personal foul unnecessary roughness, though the infraction wasn’t as clear as in the first two cases in the game. Chicago cornerback Deiondre’ Hall was flagged as he launched upwards to tackle Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst to break up a pass. Though Hall’s head was moving toward Hurst, it looked like Hall’s shoulder might have initiated the contact.
“Well, I’ll be honest, the one in the end zone is a really, really tough call for those officials,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said after the game of Hall’s penalty. “It’s hard. It’s hard. So as long as they explain it to us, which is what they did, that’s all we can ask for. We’ve just got to do our best to teach our guys about what’s right from wrong.”
The final penalty came in the fourth quarter against the Ravens — another unnecessary roughness — this one against cornerback Bennett Jackson, who dove to make a tackle against Bears tight end Daniel Brown, grazing his helmet against Brown’s chest.
“I think this is just not a foul,” former NFL referee and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay said during the broadcast.
On Twitter, McAulay elaborated, saying: “Similar play as earlier,” he said referencing the third penalty. “Appears to be legal hit and no forcible contact tot (sic) the head and neck area.”
Similar play as earlier. Appears to be legal hit and no forcible contact tot the head and neck area.
— Terry McAulay (@tjmcaulay) August 3, 2018
The NFL released a fact sheet Wednesday about the new rule, which was ratified in March. Representatives from the league’s officiating staff have been visiting all 32 teams throughout training camp to help explain the nuances of the rule changes.
Under the revised rule, any time and a player lowers his head to initiate contact and strike an opponent on any part of the body is a foul. The rule applies anywhere on the field at any given moment, and offensive players can be penalized as well.
Infractions could result in an ejection in egregious cases.
“I think what they’ve been told to do is just throw (flags),” McAulay said at the end of the broadcast. “Just throw. That way they’ll have a library of plays before (the regular-season opener in) Philadelphia, so they’ll have a better idea of what is a penalty.”