Hard-hitting Seahawks safety Chancellor must tread fine line

RENTON — Kam Chancellor isn’t sure what to do. His coaches aren’t sure what to tell him.

Welcome to the NFL’s new world order.

After a series of violent, concussion-inducing hits marred a weekend of football last season, the league has cracked down on dangerous hits, in particular ones on defenseless receivers. And while no one is questioning the purpose of the league’s new emphasis on player safety — far too much troubling evidence now exists to ignore the issue of head injuries in football — the application of those rules has proven challenging for defensive players, and in particular for hard-hitting safeties like Chancellor.

Chancellor, the Seahawks second-year strong safety who is enjoying a Pro-Bowl caliber season, has been flagged for helmet-to-helmet hits in each of the past two games. His hit on Baltimore’s Anquan Boldin resulted in a $20,000 fine, and last weekend’s hit on St. Louis tight end Lance Kendricks resulted in another letter from the league. While Chancellor wouldn’t say how much he was fined, the assumption is it will exceed last week’s punishment, adding up to a pricey couple of weeks for a player who feels like he is only doing his job.

As long as the forward pass has existed, defensive players have been trying to keep receivers from catching the ball. For most of football history, the hits Chancellor put on Boldin and Kendricks wouldn’t have just been accepted; they would have been applauded. Those days are over, however. And again, nobody, Chancellor included, wants to see receivers taken out of games with head injuries. The problem, however, is avoiding those collisions at game speed while still playing sound defense. In the case of the hit on Kedricks, Chancellor was aiming for a body blow as Kendricks started to make the catch, but as he brought in the ball, Kendricks went low and Chancellor, despite trying to lead with his shoulder, delivered a blow to the tight end’s head.

“I was aiming for his chest, and the way he was falling on his way down — I just turned my head to the side like they asked me to do after the previous week, try to hit him with my shoulder, and when he fell down his head went into my shoulder,” Chancellor said. “They were looking for the call, so that’s what happened.”

Chancellor has been flagged four times for personal fouls this season, though he wasn’t fined for either of the first two, a sign that, after being reviewed by the league, they weren’t deemed to be violent or dangerous plays. Even so, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll now worries that his young safety will get a reputation and fall under intense scrutiny of officials.

And Carroll isn’t sure what to tell Chancellor or other defensive players. He doesn’t want his team incurring 15-yard penalties, and he certainly doesn’t want to see his players or opponents injured, but it is also hard to tell a defensive back to not go hard on a play.

“It’s really hard for these guys to stop trying really hard,” Carroll said. “It’s really hard (to say), ‘Don’t try so hard. Hold back.’ That’s everything we’ve ever taught them in this game and in all sports is to do your best and go as hard as you can. So there’s an inherent problem there and we’re trying to work it out.”

Chancellor will keep trying to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits, but he said he also won’t change the way he plays the game.

“They ask me to compete,” he said. “They tell me stay in the middle of the field and protect the middle. So I’m going to compete and try to hit as correct as I can and play the game like I know how to.”

The shame of all of this is that the recent penalties and fines take away from what has otherwise been a stellar season for Chancellor. In his first season as a starter, Chancellor leads the team with three interceptions and ranks fourth with 56 tackles. Sports Illustrated even named him one of the two safeties on its midseason All-Pro team.

“He’s been doing a great job,” said free safety Earl Thomas. “He hasn’t been playing like this is his first year (starting). I think he’s been playing like one of the best strong safeties in the league and he’s emerging as a rising star on this team.”

Injury update

Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was again limited in practice Wednesday as he continues to deal with a pectoral injury. Jackson did say he felt better after last weekend’s game than he previously had following games. Receiver Ben Obomanu (knee/ankle), defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), receiver Sidney Rice (knee) and cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle) all sat out Wednesday’s practice. Safety Atari Bigby and defensive end Anthony Hargrove, who both missed last weekend’s game with hamstring injuries, practiced fully.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog

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