Recently the NFL rules on defenseless receivers and helmet to helmet hits have come under fire due to an injury Dolphins' tight end Dustin Keller received on a low hit from Texans' rookie DJ Swearinger and a $21,000 fine rookie Bears' linebacker Jonathan Bostic delivered to Chargers' wide receiver Mike Willie. The NFL has continued to pinch the "strike zone" of where a legal, yet punishing hit can be delivered. Defenders have to worry about the offensive player naturally reacting to their presence by lowering their body, causing a defender once in good position, to be in "fine" territory. The game is played at a level faster than ever, as athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. Another issue with these rules is that offensive coordinators can exploit them, as more receivers can now go across the middle without as much fear of being planted like in the past. Playing defense in the NFL is continually getting more challenging. Here we analyze each scenario individually and draw some conclusions on the rules and the plays themselves.
Keller and Swearinger
Swearinger defended his low hit on Keller's knee by mentioning that hitting high could have caused him to receive a fine, and that the rules call for him to aim low. Keller's career will be put in jeopardy due to tears of his ACL, PCL, MCL, and a dislocating his knee. First off, I think Swearinger has a point to mention the rule, but I doubt it's why he went low in that situation.
Keller, on second and five, catches the ball about two yards ahead of the line of scrimmage. Swearinger, who is a defensive back, is much smaller than the 250 pound tight end. If Swearinger attempts to make the tackle high, and gets a little "too high", there is a solid chance Keller runs him over or gains an extra yard or two. If Swearinger goes low, which he did, Keller loses his balance and the Dolphins are left with a third and short. Swearinger made the decision that was going to help his football team and allow him to make a play.
There has been a great deal made about this hit, especially on ESPN, but I don't think the rules were at fault for this one. ESPN is acting like these injuries will happen due to these hits 100% of the time. Now the rules might increase the number of low hits, and slightly increase leg injury rates, but we need to realize that this was a freak injury. Tannehill delivered a poor ball to Keller, who is forced to catch it behind him and turn back toward the field. This causes his knee to twist toward Swearinger, who made the right read on the play, leading him to be positioning himself to make a play before Keller even makes the catch. If the ball is delivered well, then I doubt we are even talking about this issue.
Bostic and Willie
Now this is the situation where the rules and the NFL have become a laughing stock. Bostic delivered a clean hit with his shoulder directly to Willie's chest as the receiver caught a screen. Slow down the tape and you'll see that Bostic squares Willie up, positions his head slightly to the left, and lowers the boom. That's a form tackle and fundamental football at play. Bostic was never penalized on the field, but due to misinterpretation of a replay by the league office he'll lose $21,000, which is very significant for a rookie. The NFL claims that Bostic was fined for lowering his head during on a defenseless player, and each claim can be easily countered by watching some game tape.
First off, Willie was not defenseless, he just didn't see Bostic. Willie cleanly catches the ball, takes a few steps, which define football moves, and is leveled by Bostic. Bostic comes from the middle of the field, as he is the middle linebacker, as Willie comes runs toward the hashmarks on the designed screen to the X receiver. This is just a great read by Bostic, who makes a play on Willie, who was running in that direction while his eyes located the wrong linebacker.
Secondly, Bostic did not make contact with his helmet or Willie's helmet. He does lower his head to deliver the hit, but did not use his helmet to deliver a clean hit. Bostic makes contact with his shoulder. It is his job to deliver a thunderous hit on this play, as it gives the defense a mental and tactical edge when the middle of the field becomes a "danger zone". Bostic displayed great fundamentals for delivering a massive hit.
The funniest thing about this fine is that the NFL released video of the hit that called it spectacular on their website. How do you celebrate and bring your league publicity for the play and then fine the player. Bostic was fined for a clean hit that the league celebrated. Just another reason this is called the "No Fun League".