Ravens rookie free safety Matt Elam has only played six games in the NFL, but he is already aware of the split-second dilemma that defenders face while converging on pass-catchers in the open field and taking aim at target areas some feel are shrinking by the second.
Go high and your bank account could take a hit. Go low and you could cause a serious knee injury, something that many players would prefer much less than a concussion.
Elam was put in that position late in the second quarter of Sunday's 19-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. On a critical third-down play, Elam took out Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb with a low hit to the right knee. Cobb was knocked out of the game, joining fellow wide receiver James Jones on the sideline.
After the game, while talking about the euphoria of beating the defending Super Bowl champions on the road, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made a point to bring up Elam's hit, calling it a "questionable play."
"I just felt like he had enough time to make a hit in the legal hitting zone," said Rodgers, who threw for 315 yards and a touchdown despite losing two of his top three wide receivers.
Green Bay faced third-and-19 when Cobb caught a pass from Rodgers at the Ravens' 13-yard line. Streaking to meet him from his deep zone was Elam, who dove and drove his shoulder into Cobb's knee, dropping Cobb four yards short of a first down.
As Cobb writhed in pain on the field before being helped to the sideline, Rodgers approached Elam and voiced his displeasure with the low blow. Ravens strong safety James Ihedigbo joined the conversation and mentioned the shrinking target areas.
"I just felt like from my vantage point he had plenty of time to not take out a guy's legs in that situation," Rodgers said. "I think he could have hit him in the proper hitting zone and that's what I told him. The other safety came over and actually made a very knowledgeable point, which I appreciated a little intelligent answer back and forth about some of the issues defensive players have to deal with [trying to hit] the target area. I totally understand that and get that."
In the locker room, Elam declined to comment on the hit. But Ihedigbo, who was getting dressed at a nearby stall, interjected into the conversation.
"Yeah, on the hit, it's part of the rules," Ihedigbo said calmly. "We try to play within the rules of football. That's on [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell. He wants us to hit low, we'll hit low, and guys will keep getting injured. God forbid, but that's been taking place with [Miami Dolphins tight end] Dustin Keller being out for the season. God forbid, I don't know what Randall Cobb suffered, but I'm praying for him because it's unfortunate."
Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury on a similar play in the preseason when Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger hit him in the knee instead of tackling higher.
The hit prompted Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez to tell USA Today that it was his "nightmare" to get hit in the knee and that he would rather get hit in the head.
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Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who had four catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, empathized with Elam, though he thought Elam didn't need to go that low to tackle Cobb.
"It's tough. Defensive guys are given a small target zone to make plays and make hits," Nelson said. "If they can't go high, there's only one other way to go. I'm not saying that low, but I haven't been in that situation, so I'm not going to judge anyone who makes a play. I think it's a split-second decision. I don't think he's back there thinking, 'If he throws it up high, I'm going to take that guy's knee out. It's tough. You don't want to see it, but it's hard to play defense right now."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy did not go into specifics about the injury to Cobb, who had four catches for 53 yards before he got carted to the locker room and returned on crutches. McCarthy said he hopes the injury won't end Cobb's season or sideline him for an extended period of time.
Elam was not penalized on the play and is not expected to be fined for the hit because it did not appear that he intended to injure Cobb by going low during the bang-bang play.
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.