You can still hit hard under new NFL rules

RENTON — To everyone that said the NFL’s new emphasis on player safety would make it impossible to play defense, would allow receivers to run across the middle of the field without fear of punishment, Kam Chancellor would like to introduce you to his shoulder pads.

Well, at least he will as soon as he gets them out of Jason Witten’s back, where they were firmly imbedded in the first quarter during the Seahawks 27-7 thrashing of the Cowboys.

Golden Tate’s thumping — and as the league saw it, fine-worthy — block on Sean Lee was the hit that got all of the attention this week, but Chancellor’s first-quarter stick on Witten was more important. That hit wasn’t just big because it and other big hits dished out by Seattle’s secondary may have contributed to Witten’s drops later in the game, it also was significant because it, along with several other plays Sunday, showed that Seattle’s defense is figuring out how to be physical within the confines of the league’s emphasis on player safety.

This Seahawks defense does not need to decapitate in order to intimidate.

When the NFL began cracking down on helmet-to-helmet blows and other hard hits on defenseless players midway through the 2010 season, defensive players had a hard time adjusting. That carried over into last season, when some of the game’s more physical players struggled to play their game without having to send large checks to the league offices in New York. Chancellor, for example, was fined $20,000 and $40,000 in back-to-back games for helmet-to-helmet hits. With another offseason under their belts, defensive players are figuring out how to dish out punishment without getting a FedEx package in their lockers the following Wednesday.

Sunday’s win over the Cowboys was a perfect example of that. Chancellor’s big hit on Witten came a play after he crushed Miles Austin in the open field by putting his shoulder into Austin’s body. A year or two ago, there’s a good chance Chancellor would have launched head first into the receiver. In the second quarter, Dez Bryant was in the process of securing the catch across the middle of the field when Earl Thomas threw his body, not his head, into the Bryant’s body, jarring the ball loose.

“I think we’re adjusting well,” Chancellor said. “We’re learning to be smarter players, not hurting our team by doing dumb things. I think we’ve adjusted well. We can still hit hard, just hit correctly. That’s what we did against Dallas without getting penalized. We know it’s possible because we did it.”

During the fourth quarter, Witten had a pass bounce off his hands and to the CenturyLink Field turf, his third drop of the game. On the T.V. broadcast, Daryl Johnston said he couldn’t remember ever seeing Witten have this kind of trouble catching the ball in his decorated career.

And there’s a very good chance that Witten’s drops were anything but coincidental. Yes, the Pro Bowl player’s first drop came before he had taken any hard hits, but the second drop came on the same possession as that big Chancellor hit, and as the ball approached him, Thomas was closing rapidly within Witten’s field of vision. Witten’s third drop also came in traffic in the middle of the field.

“You want to go out there and punish guys, put that pad on a guy so the second time, he’ll think about it — where’s the safety coming from, where’s the corner coming from?” cornerback Brandon Browner said.

You can argue all you want that the league has gone too far in focusing on player safety. You can point out that these plays happen way too fast for a defensive player to adjust at the last second to a receiver ducking at the moment of impact. Whatever your stance, it is very clear that the NFL is going to do whatever it can to reduce head injuries.

The intent is very good — we’ve all learned a lot in the past few years about the long-term toll head injuries can have on football players. Whether the punishment has gone over the top or not isn’t worth arguing. This is the new NFL. To use a classic sports cliche, it is what it is. And the better defenses can adjust, the faster players figure out how to thumpers without being head hunters, the sooner they’ll be able to play effective, tough defense without facing consequences like flags or fines.

It’s a fine line between intimidation and fearing suspension, but if the first two games are any indication, the Seahawks are walking that line very gracefully. And, of course, powerfully.

“You can still have big hits out there, you can still go after the football, but you have to do it within the rules,” secondary coach Kris Richard said. “When they own it, now it comes to fruition out there on game day. You can condition them a particular way to do things, but it takes some time to learn to do things the right way. When you start to do it the right way, you can be effective and still be safe.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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