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Penalties for illegal use of the helmet have a predictable 2019 debut



In 2018, greater scrutiny than ever before was placed on hits that fell under the new changes for use of the helmet to initiate contact. Players, coaches, and officials were instructed over a period of weeks on what was considered legal and illegal hits involving the use of the players helmet. This was a previous change from the 2013 crown rule, which was deleted entirely from the rulebook in 2018.

Rule 12-2-9(b)(1):

Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him

In 2019, the league is adding even more scrutiny by giving Game Day Central the power to intervene in egregious hits committed by the players, with the first intervention and ejection occuring in a week one preseason game between the 49ers and Cowboys. The first ejection, which appears to have not required league intervention, occurred in another preseason week one game, the Bengals at Chiefs game when Chiefs cornerback D’Montre Wade hit Bengals tight end Drew Sample in the head.

A third ejection occurred in the preseason week two game between the Vikings and Seahawks when Vikings cornerback Holton Hill hit Seahawks quarterback Paxton Lynch as he was sliding after a zone read keeper late in the fourth quarter. Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron confirmed via tweet that Game Day Central intervened in the ejection.

There have been as many ejections in the first two preseason weeks as the previous two preseasons.

Sure enough, preseason week two brought us at least two more examples of legal and illegal hits under the use of the helmet rule and caused further debate on social media as to what exactly is the purpose of the rule if the hits look like perfectly good form tackles. Oddly enough, both examples happened by special teams players on their punt teams.

To satisfy the use of the helmet of the rule, illegal hits must contain the following three elements if contact is initiated with the helmet:

  1. Lowering the head to establish a linear body posture
  2. Has an unobstructed path to the opponent
  3. Contact was avoidable

The first example comes from the Browns at Colts game when defensive back and special teams gunner J.T. Hassell lowered his helmet and drove himself into Colts punt returner Nyheim Hines on a punt late in the third quarter. Hassell’s hit satisfied the three elements that officiating crews are looking for when determining if the hit was illegal.


Preseason broadcast angles don’t give us much but the Colts broadcast gives us the best view of the hit. Hassell lowered his head with his eyes down towards the ground, signaling his intent is to lead with the helmet. If he wrapped the returner up first and then helmet contact happened, then it’s incidental and not a foul. Hassell was assessed a 15 yard penalty for illegal use of the helmet but was not ejected.

The second his is a prime example of what a legal hit looks like, and shows that players are capable of adjusting their playing style to accommodate the rules. In fact, the Seahawks perfected this style of tackle and continue to teach their players this way every year during the offseason program. Just a handful of other teams have implemented this style of tackle and they are teams that have former assistants under Pete Carroll.


On this hit occurring in a preseason week two game, Seahawks nickel defensive back and special teams gunner Ugo Amadi sprinted down the field after splitting the Vikings double team on a punt late in the second quarter. Amadi lowered his helmet, established a linear body position, and drove his shoulder into Vikings punt returner Olabisi Johnson. However, he did not satisfy the three criteria for an illegal use of the helmet hit because he did not make contact with his helmet first.

In the new tackling techniques, each type of tackle is meant to minimize that compression of the spine on the tackler and emphasizes leading with the shoulder, wrapping up the ball carrier at the hips, and driving through the opponent to take him down. This type of hit can still be painful for any kick or punt returner or other ball carrier but it does minimize the amount of head trauma a player can experience.

The second example is a perfect example of what the league is looking for from players. The intent is not only to minimize the risk to the ball carrier, but also to minimize the potential damage done to the offending player as lowering the head and initiating contact with the helmet is a tremendous transfer of power down the spinal column of the athlete and can cause irreparable damage with one unlucky hit.

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