By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The NFL has caused quite a stir (shocker) with its controversial new rules against unnecessary helmet contact. Flags are flying for borderline helmet hits. But more concerning is that sometimes, the flags have even come out for regular ol’ tackles. The message is clear: you dip your helmet, you should be wary of a 15-yard penalty.
Coaches appear to be treating the new rule like at least a mild concern entering the season. Players like Richard Sherman have spoken out strongly against it. This kind of turmoil feels prevalent across the National Football League.
But in New England, it’s all quiet on the helmet foul front.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick couldn’t sound less concerned about the new rules, which call for personal fouls against players who lower their helmets to initiate contact. Anyone who assumes a “linear posture” and lowers his head for otherwise avoidable contact with an opponent will be flagged for 15 yards. It applies to everyone on the field, both offense and defense.
Many have jumped to the worst possible scenario, that the NFL is sapping its own product of what makes football so entertaining in the first place. It’s an inherently violent game, yes, but it’s hard to blame the league for wanting to make it safer for its players, many of which basically get in 60 car crashes every Sunday.
But ask Belichick, and the rule change really isn’t that big of a deal. The Patriots coach their guys up on tackling every single day, and there’s never been an emphasis on leading with the crown of the helmet or lowering their heads. Keep your head up and your opponent in front of you before dragging them down. Believe it or not, it’s possible to tackle a guy with only minimally incidental helmet contact and without driving your entire weight into them.
One of the best examples of how the Patriots like to coach tackling is to go back and watch former linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was one of the league’s best tacklers during his career. Mayo bear-hugged opponents and wrapped them up as well as anyone. He always kept his head and chest up and brought guys down without having to dive or launch himself. Even when he delivered hits over the middle, he led cleanly with the shoulder. You can reasonably suspect that Belichick has showed the Patriots some older footage of Mayo to teach legal and proper fundamental tackling.
Belichick’s utter lack of concern with the new helmet rule goes back to the first week of training camp.
“We always have coached fundamentals and proper techniques as we believe in them and as we’re instructed with the rules,” he said on Aug. 1. “So, that’s always part of it.”
The new rule sparked some controversy in Foxboro during the Patriots’ second preseason game against the Eagles. One of the most questionable calls of them all came against Patriots safety Jordan Richards, who looked like he did all he could to make a proper tackle without violating the rules.
Pretty much everyone agrees that Richards didn’t commit a foul, even by the letter of the law. So even Belichick acknowledged that the Patriots may have to be cognizant of how games are being officiated. They can control how they tackle, but they can’t control how a referee is going to perceive them.
“We’re just going to have to try and do a good job of getting a clear understanding and these are plays that help define [the new rule], of what it is and what isn’t allowed,” Belichick said after the Patriots’ second preseason game. “Again, it doesn’t really matter what we think. What matters is what the officials think and what they see and what they’re going to call. We’ll have to adjust to the way the game is being called, not the other way around. We’ll, again, examine those plays and ask about some other ones that are similar and try to do as good a job of teaching that rule as we can. I’m sure the players will do as good a job of playing it as they can. No player wants to get a 15-yard penalty, so we might have to adjust our style or technique a little bit as we go here.”
Even if Belichick and the Patriots have to adjust their own tackling techniques, they already have an advantage over other teams. They’ve never treated kamikaze-style dives and helmet hits as the way to bring opponents down. Players like Brandon Meriweather have been huge outliers. There’s a chance that this still-questionable new rule will affect most other teams more than the Patriots. It’ll certainly be something to monitor.
The helmet rule may look like it has disaster potential, but the men at Patriot Place might come out of it unscathed. In fact, the Patriots may have retroactively given themselves an edge.
1. Receiver is among the top positional battles to watch with just one preseason game left. Injuries continue to thin out this already-shallow group. However, there’s probably only one open spot that will ultimately go to either Riley McCarron, Devin Lucien, Eric Decker, or Braxton Berrios. Safe money should be on McCarron at this point, but there’s also a chance that the Patriots exercise patience with the veteran Decker. It sounds like the 31-year-old is picking up the offense quickly; it just has yet to translate on the field.
2. Another spot to watch is the final safety on the depth chart. Interestingly enough, the Patriots started trying out Jason McCourty at safety during Friday’s preseason loss to the Panthers. It could be an indication that McCourty is getting a chance to beat out Richards or Eddie Pleasant for the fifth safety spot. Twin brother Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon are roster locks, with special teams cornerstone Nate Ebner also likely to make the team. The Patriots may want to go young at cornerback – with plenty of viable options to fill in behind roster locks like Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, and Duke Dawson – and give the experienced Jason McCourty an avenue to make the roster another way.
3. Finally, Phillip Dorsett looked like the player he needs to be for the Patriots this season. The starting offense struggled in the first half against the Panthers, but Dorsett did not, catching all four of his targets for 36 yards. That includes a six-yard reception on a fourth-and-3 play. The most important thing with Dorsett – any Patriots receiver, anyway – is to enter Tom Brady’s vaunted Circle Of Trust™. Be where he thinks you’re going to be, and catch the ball. If Dorsett can consistently be as reliable as he was on Friday, he’d alleviate a lot of concerns surrounding the team’s receiver corps.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.