Mike Zimmer wasn’t happy last October when he heard the news from the league.
Starting safety Andrew Sendejo would be suspended for the team’s game in London after a helmet-to-helmet hit on Ravens’ receiver Mike Wallace the week prior. Sendejo’s hit concussed Wallace, drew a flag and wiped out a Vikings fumble recovery on the play.
“I think [Sendejo] hit him with a glancing blow,” Zimmer said the day after the game, “I know what [the officials] told me, but I’m going to turn it in and see what they say. [Wallace] established position as a runner, took two extra steps and Xavier [Rhodes] was trying to pull the ball out, which he ended up doing.”
Zimmer’s angst at the decision may be a common refrain from NFL coaches this season in light of the league’s stricter policy aimed at wiping out hits to and with the helmet.
“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent,” the new rule says. “The player may be disqualified.”
This applies to offensive and defensive players alike.
While proper technique may not teach players to lower their helmet, the margin for error is slimmer now that a slight duck of the head could draw a 15-yard penalty. The rule was designed to not only prevent helmet-to-helmet hits that would often leave victims motionless on the turf but to eliminate another Ryan Shazier situation where the initiator bore the brunt of the contact.
The Steelers linebacker suffered a serious spinal injury when he lowered his helmet to apply a hit against the Cincinnati Bengals last season and is currently walking with a cane.
“They’re trying to make the game safe,” Vikings defensive back Horace Richardson told Zone Coverage. “The safer the game is, the longer we all can play. Whatever’s for the better.”
Zimmer said Saturday that the rule change will alter the way the team instructs its players, especially those in the secondary, where unpredictable open-field hits are more commonplace.
“I think there is going to be a lot of challenges with it,” said Zimmer. “I’m going through tape right now from past games or plays and thinking to myself, ‘I think that is going to be a penalty right now, or I wonder if that one is going to be a penalty this year.’ I think it is going to take a little bit of preseason to clean up a little bit. I think they kind of understand what [officials] are going to call, but talking to officials and things like that. It is going to be tough at first.”
The Vikings had an NFL officiating crew visit organized team activities, led by head ref Jerome Boger, but with tackling in practice a thing of the past, instruction at this stage is purely theoretical, making it impossible for refs to get a feel for making the right calls and for players to eliminate poor habits.
The preseason will take on greater meaning as crews and players get four games to figure out what exactly mandates a flag.
“That’s why preseason’s really good because you get those games with live tackling reps,” said linebacker Ben Gedeon to Zone Coverage, “and that will help us with the transition into the regular season.
“I think the way we teach tackling out here, it shouldn’t be an issue. We reiterate that through practice during the season, so we know how to tackle. We’ve just got to be mindful of it.”
Gedeon has a point. The Vikings have been among the league’s best at avoiding personal foul calls in recent years.
There were 212 instances of unnecessary roughness in 2017, according to nflpenalties.com, which includes violent hits to an opponent. The Steelers led the league with 13 such calls, while the Vikings tied with four other teams for the NFL’s fewest with three.
It was the same story in 2016. Pittsburgh led with 13 unnecessary roughness calls; Minnesota had just three.
The frequency of these calls has gone up over the past decade. When nflpenalties.com began tracking the data in 2009, there were just 148 unnecessary roughness penalties called. There have been over 200 each of the past three years, and that number could easily go up with the new policy.
And don’t forget: Offensive players will be under scrutiny as well. Rookie running back Mike Boone now has to rethink the way he absorbs contact.
“As a running back you kind of have to brace yourself for impact also,” Boone told Zone Coverage. “It’d be kind of hard not to lower your head, but Coach [Kennedy] Polamalu, he’s awesome with techniques and everything, so he’ll help us a lot.”
Despite his Pro Bowl pedigree, corner Xavier Rhodes has been the most penalized Viking over the past four years, drawing 33 accepted flags – most of them of the holding or pass interference variety. Now he has to be mindful about another type of infraction.
“We’ve just got to play within those rules,” said Rhodes. “You can’t do nothing about that. If it’s tough and you get penalized, you’re just going to learn from that and work on that as the season goes.”
Several high-profile players have openly criticized the rule change, including defensive backs Richard Sherman. “It’s ridiculous,” Sherman told USA Today. “Like telling a driver if you touch the lane lines, you’re getting a ticket.”
The Vikings, so far, have mostly toed the line with regard to the rule change. They plan on attending the annual rules meeting during training camp and getting video instructions from the league to help their technique.
Nobody is going to change the league’s mind. Like the 31 other teams, Minnesota will have to evolve or run the risk of losing games because of reckless tackles.
“Try not to leave it up to judgment,” said Gedeon. “Just tackle the right way.”