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Why helmet-to-helmet fouls are determined by the intent of the defender

A flag for a helmet-to-helmet hit is dependent on whether the hit was an act of self-defense against contact or force against an opponent, illustrated by two plays from last weekend.

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Two hits from Sunday’s Week 4 games illustrate the nature of the helmet-to-helmet hits that do and do not result in in-game ejections and the ways in which players seek to defend themselves vice total disregard for the players around them. The hits were administered by Vontaze Burfict of the Oakland Raiders and Jonathan Jones of the New England Patriots.  

Earlier this week, Burfict was suspended for the remainder of the season for a helmet-to-helmet to hit on Colts tight end Jack Doyle. His suspension is the longest a player has faced for on-field behavior; primarily due to the fact that he is a repeat offender for egregious hits on defenseless players. Since 2015, Burfict has now received three suspensions (the first two were three game suspensions) and multiple fines for reckless play.

Burfict’s hit on Doyle on Sunday initially earned him an ejection from the game for unnecessary roughness. After Doyle caught a pass over the middle on one knee, Burfict came in a launched himself head first at Doyle to make the tackle.

Burfict initiated a textbook example of an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit when he lowered his head, took his eyes off of the receiver, and initiated contact with his helmet. This is foul no matter where the offending player makes contact with his helmet. The hit is also potentially career-ending as can be seen in the last angle of the video. That spinal compression could become a concern had Burfict’s hit landed on a different area of Doyle’s body. They very well might have saved his life by suspending him for the rest of the year.

This is the exact same type of hit that ended Ryan Shazier’s career in the embarrassingly violent Monday Night Football in 2017 between the Bengals and Steelers, and Burfict knows that the NFL is trying to eliminate these types of hits. Since last season alone, this is Burfict’s third incident of disciplinary action for helmet to helmet hits, according to Spotrac.

On the same day in the same early slate of games, Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones administered a helmet-to helmet hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen as Allen scrambled to pick up a first down on a third-and-8 play. Speaking to WEEI earlier this week, head coach Bill Belichick stated that “Jones did what we’ve coached him to do. If that’s a foul we’ll have to coach him differently.”

As Jones approaches Allen, he lowers his head for contact but appears to be doing so in a manner that suggests personal defense rather than the heat-seeking missile posture of Burfict. Jones tries to turn his head to avoid contact with Allen but still ends up with a helmet-to-helmet hit and a flag for unnecessary roughness. During the game, the league reviewed the hit and determined it did not rise to the level of an immediate ejection. It is still unclear if Jones is going to also receive a fine for the hit.

As the NFL enforces this rule week after week, the message is clear: refine your tackling technique or face progressive disciplinary action. The Jones hit, while clear that he was trying to protect himself, is still the right call, but the messaging from Belichick was clear: “we’ll have to coach him differently.” That’s precisely what some teams are doing and have been doing for a while now.

The more teams move to a leverage-based tackling technique, the more player safety will improve, and the less the rule will be applied. There will inevitably be the hits that cannot be avoided, like the Jones hit, but the idea is to get players reacting to inevitable hits by utilizing techniques that will protect them and the player they’re about to hit.

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