New NFL running back restriction at head of debate

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Late in the fourth quarter of a 2009 game at Heinz Field, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson caught a pass over the middle, lowered his head and bowled over Steelers cornerback William Gay. Sideline microphones picked up Peterson screaming, not in pain, but in joy of the accomplishment. Likewise, the announcers on the Fox television broadcast gushed over the play and praised Peterson for his physical style of running.

For years, NFL Films has amassed footage of similar runs and used them on their highlight reels. But now, in light of the NFL trying to decrease concussions and promote safety, a new rule is attempting to eradicate such plays from the league.

The new rule that stipulates a ballcarrier cannot use the crown of his helmet to deliver a forcible blow to a defender if he is outside the tackle box and 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Under the current rule, Peterson would have been called for a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul. NFL defenders have been penalized for years for using the crown of their helmets while attempting to tackle ballcarriers, but this will be the first year ballcarriers can be flagged for using their helmet as a weapon.

NFL owners passed the rule by a 31-1 vote in March, but from the time the league made the announcement running backs have railed against it.

Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk called it a "stupid" rule. Other backs, past and present, also had a hard time accepting it because they believed backs would lose some of their defense against hard-charging tacklers.

Even Gay, who was on the wrong end of one of Peterson's head butts, is sympathetic toward running backs.

"It's all dangerous once you step in between these lines," Gay said. "You never know what can happen. I know they're trying to protect us as we get older in our lives. But it's tough on the running backs. They're taught all their lives to protect themselves. If you want to run somebody over you duck your head and drop your shoulder. It's dangerous for them as well, but hey, but if you learned like that all your life and you tell them to stop when they're 25 or 26 or 27, that's going to be hard."

When the Steelers play the New York Giants in a preseason game Saturday night at Heinz Field they will play under the new guidelines for the first time.

NFL officials visited Steelers training camp last week to brief players on the new rule. Even though the rule has been the subject of much discussion among players in the offseason, officials and coaches do not believe the new rule will have a major impact on the game.

NFL side judge Ron Torbert said a penalty would have been called only five times in 2012. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson went back and looked at other recent seasons involving the Steelers and did not find one instance when a penalty would have been called.

"I've looked at every run snap we've had the last couple of years and we haven't had any issues with that rule," Wilson said. "We're not going to change our running style, but we are aware of it. The league has done a very good job of educating us on what the rule is and what their intentions are. It's not a big deal in our room. Our guys are in compliance with it. They agree with it. We'll go ahead and move forward with it."

Steelers running back Isaac Redman said he feels more comfortable with the rule after hearing from the officials.

"I wasn't 100 percent sure about what they wanted from us," Redman said. "I didn't know if we lowered our head, would there would be a flag? But after meeting with the officials you basically have to lower your head all the way and force your head into a defender and be straight-up with a defender.

"That meeting gave me a lot more information on what they expect out of us. I don't really think it will be too much of a problem because I'm not a running back that puts his head down. I try to run over defenders, but I don't use the crown of my helmet, so I don't think it will be that much of a problem for me."

Peterson, the reigning NFL MVP, was one of the running backs the NFL was targeting when the rule was designed. But he is hardly alone. Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns lowered his head into Philadelphia safety Kurt Coleman in 2012 and knocked Coleman's helmet off his head. Richardson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer he felt responsible for the rule change because of that play.

Still, players and coaches don't seem overly concerned with the new rule, especially defenders. They won't be holding their breath in anticipation of penalties being issued.

"It looks like it will be hard for them to call a 15-yard penalty on that," Gay said. "They said last year only five plays they would have called it. How many plays were there in the entire NFL season? And they're only going to call to five times? You better forget that rule and just play football."

Steelers - mobilehome

Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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