FOXBOROUGH — Longtime NFL referee Clete Blakeman was at Gillette Stadium Monday explaining all of the league’s new rules to the Patriots’ players and coaches.
After listening to Blakeman and watching instructional videos, the Patriots think they understand the new leading-with-the-helmet rule.
“I don’t know how they’re going to officiate it,” fullback James Develin said. “I don’t know what’s going to get past and what’s not.”
“Like anything, it’s going to be interesting,” center David Andrews said. “There’s no telling what that’s going to look like for a year.”
The NFL adopted a significant rule change back in March, making it a 15-yard penalty and potential ejection for any player who “lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.”
But the rule was approved hastily, and created much confusion as to how closely it would be applied.
Would players in the trenches be penalized for helmet-to-helmet contact, which happens on almost every play? And what about a hit like the one Malcolm Jenkins put on Brandin Cooks in the Super Bowl? When a group of officials was in Philadelphia last week to go over the rules with the Eagles, the officials were split: half said it was a penalty, the other half didn’t.
On Wednesday, the NFL provided some clarity on the rule by releasing to the media the position-specific training videos that it is showing to each team — the same videos that Blakeman showed to the Patriots Monday.
No, the guys in the trenches won’t be called tightly. The rule is mostly intended for plays in space — a defensive back aiming for a receiver, a running back lining up a tackler, or a pulling guard taking on a linebacker. If the player has an unobstructed path to the opponent and the contact can clearly be avoided, he can be ejected and potentially suspended.
Blakeman’s talk Monday “definitely cleared up some stuff,” safety Duron Harmon said, though the Jenkins/Cooks play from the Super Bowl never came up in the discussion.
Still, no one is quite sure how tightly the officials are going to call the rule and how much of an effect it will have on the game.
“We know what we know,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “We’ll see how it goes.”
The NFL wants players to keep their heads up and out of harm’s way, and has identified certain postures and positions that it wants to emphasize, and those it wants to ban.
Here is what the league is looking for, based on the five position-specific instructional videos produced by the NFL:
■ The video for ball carriers (running backs, receivers, kick returners, etc.), narrated by Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, emphasizes three elements of the correct posture: knees bent, pads down, and head up. This allows the ball carrier to respond quickly and to deliver or absorb contact, and a chance to react to the opponent.
What the NFL doesn’t want is a “linear” or “flat back, head down” position, where the head, neck, and spine are all on an equal plane. If the officials see that, they’re going to call a 15-yard penalty on the ball carrier.
“We’re trying to get the flat back angle with the head down out of the game,” Lynn said.
■ In the offensive line video, narrated by Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, the three coaching points are: Head up (see what you hit), the helmet should never be the first point of contact, and the initial contact must be with the hands, shoulder, or forearm, even on a cut block.
The players most under the microscope here will be the guards pulling around the edge and sizing up a linebacker or a safety on the second level. The video showed six examples of guards lowering their heads and delivering a head-first block, which is now a penalty.
The players are supposed to get their heads off to the side and lead with their hands or shoulders. The same rules apply for any type of block from fullbacks, tight ends, and receivers.
The Patriots’ Joe Thuney is cited twice in the video for good technique on a pull against the Dolphins. Former Patriots tackle Cam Fleming is used as a bad example of someone putting his head down to make a block against the Jets.
Patriots guard Shaq Mason said he’s not worried about getting penalized more this year.
“We’ve been taught the new rule and went over the new rule and all that,” he said. “But as far as changing the way, you just go out there and play.”
Andrews doesn’t think the new rule will be called tightly in the interior offensive line.
“My interpretation is not much is going to change in there,” he said. “I don’t know how you could judge that, see that, with a million other things going on.”
■ In the defensive lineman video, narrated by Falcons coach Dan Quinn, the players are taught: hands first, pads down, head out. This applies when defensive linemen are engaging offensive linemen on the pass rush, and when they are hitting quarterbacks and ball carriers.
The video shows example after example of defensive ends lowering their heads and initiating contact with offensive tackles in pass-rushing situations, which will now be a penalty.
“The dip of the helmet is what they’ll be looking for,” Quinn said.
Incidental helmet contact will be allowed if the initial contact is with the hands or shoulders, but in real speed, this could be difficult for officials to gauge.
And the new rule opens the possibility that a team will make an apparent big sack but instead be penalized 15 yards.
“When hitting the quarterback, you really need to lead with the shoulder,” Quinn said.
Patriots defensive end Adrian Clayborn said he’s not worried about the new rule, and doesn’t think it will be called too closely.
“If they do, then it’s going to be crazy,” he said. “I think it’s just to take out the big crazy hits that get guys hospitalized.”
■ The linebacker video, narrated by Titans coach Mike Vrabel, once again emphasizes proper tackling technique: knees bent, pads down, head up. Vrabel said repeatedly that players will be penalized if they make a “linear position,” with their head, neck, and spine on the same plane.
“Even if you lead with your hands, you can still create a linear position with the head down, which is still bad,” Vrabel said.
Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts said this isn’t much of a change from years past.
“We talk about it every year, though, even before the rule, always talk about the technique,” he said. “Obviously, don’t put your head down.”
■ The defensive back video emphasizes the same tackling technique and warns players not to go in for a tackle or pass breakup with their heads down.
“We must keep our head up when we’re trying to tackle, and aim for the numbers,” said the narrator, Jets coach Todd Bowles.
But even Bowles can’t help himself while narrating the video, commenting that these plays are going to be tough to officiate in real time.
“All these plays will be difficult because of the referees and live speed,” he said. “They’re easy to call in slow motion, and the officials will have a tough task. But these are the things we’re trying to clean up during the game.”
Harmon knows he and other defensive backs will be on the hot seat this fall, and that an inadvertent, bang-bang play could result in a 15-yard penalty, a fine, and even an ejection or suspension. But he’s OK with the new rule.
“I appreciate the NFL trying to take the helmet out of the game,” Harmon said. “I’ve just got to do the best I can to use my shoulders. Literally all I can worry about is play football as fast as I can, not really think too much, except just form tackling the way I have.”