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While adjusting to NFL's new helmet rule, Ravens players, coaches wonder how it will affect the game

The NFL passed a new set of rules in 2018 to make the game safer. Fans will notice that the kickoff will be quite different from the previous season. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

The NFL’s attempt to curb injury-inducing hits by restricting tackles leading with the helmet has produced more headaches than headway in the preseason. But several Ravens players and coaches said they will try to adjust their play according to the rule.

“I think it’s good,” inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said. “What I don’t want it to affect us is, we don’t want to play slow. We’re still going to play fast and physical — that’s how we’ve been trained — and I think that’s how we’re going to play. It’s a rule that’s in place, and we’re going to try to abide by the rule and follow the rule. But we’re still going to play fast and physical.”

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The league instituted in May a policy dishing out 15-yard penalties for players who lower their heads to make contact with their helmets. Hits that lead with the helmet that are viewed as egregious and clearly avoidable might result in ejections and/or fines.

While defenders are the most likely players expected to be flagged for leading with their helmets, the rule will also apply to running backs and receivers using their helmets to gain extra yardage and offensive linemen trying to open running lanes with their heads down. Quarterbacks who attempt to sneak the ball over the line of scrimmage are exempt from the rule.

Through Aug. 21, officials had called 51 fouls based on the new rule, the NFL informed Pro Football Talk. Forty-three of those penalties were incurred by the defense.

The rule change is a response to the rise in cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, otherwise known as CTE, a progressive degenerative brain disease that has been discovered in more than 100 former NFL players. A study released in July 2017 by Boston University researcher Dr. Ann McKee examined the brains of 202 deceased football players and found that 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players had CTE. The results were published the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Offensive lineman James Hurst said he understands the intent behind the new policy.

“Obviously, it’s a big safety concern for everybody,” he said. “It’s a little different for sure. Some people lead with the helmet, and you just have to keep your face up. It’s good for us. At the end of the day, they’re just trying to keep everybody safe. It’s going to be tough to call, I’m sure. But we just have to go out there and play. They’re coaching us up to keep our face up, to keep the crown of our helmet out of it and always see what you hit. That’s what you have to do — you have to practice it and go out and play on Sunday. If you get a call, you just have to move on.”

Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said the coaches have been closely monitoring the players’ tackling styles to avoid any costly penalties.

“What the adjustment is, is you’re really conscious now as the coach — whether it’s a position coach, myself or [John Harbaugh] to, ‘Keep your eyes up, keep your eyes up,’ ” he said. “If a guy starts to drop his head, ‘You’ve got to get your head out of there, you’ve got to get your head out of there.’ You just hear that more because we don’t make the rules, we just play by them. That’s the way we’ve always been here.”

Officials have been flagging any hit that looks borderline in the preseason, which has drawn the ire of current and former players, coaches and fans. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph have expressed reservations about the rule.

"It's going to cost some people some jobs — playoffs, jobs, the whole bit I'm guessing," Zimmer said in August. "We haven't had any called on us so far. It's just hard to figure out. No one has ever said to me, 'Hey. Don't worry about it, we're going to call it less or we'll get it straightened out in the regular season. Or we're going to come up with a revised rule.' No one has ever said that.”

Said Joseph: “It’s really gray right now. The problem I’m having with the call right now is it’s been bang-bang plays, and it’s hard to tell if the head is hitting the body.”

Ravens free safety Eric Weddle questioned one such penalty on safety Bennett Jackson during a 17-16 win against the Chicago Bears on Aug. 2, retweeting San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman’s contention that the “rule is idiotic.”

“The fact that rule changes are made without the thought of asking the player who PLAY is baffling to me,” Weddle wrote on Twitter. “Dumb dumb dumbbbbbb.”

But Weddle took the diplomatic approach when asked about it.

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“This is the greatest game in the world,” he said. “It’s the greatest team sport. It’s been going on for a lot of years, and we don’t need to keep tweaking and changing the game. It’s a good game. But when we’re trying to make it better, trying to make it safer for the players, then we have to adapt a little bit and be a pro. I don’t foresee it being that big of a problem. There are going to be some calls you get, some calls you don’t. Just line up and play the next down.”

Former Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said the helmet rule is causing players to entertain second thoughts on the field when a mere second could be critical.

“I mean, they’re making guys so gun-shy,” said Johnson, who is the team’s on-air radio analyst for this season. “It’s making them hold back and change the way that they’re playing. Somehow, they had more concussions last year than they ever had. Obviously, whatever decisions they’re making, trying to protect players with what they say are the best intentions in mind, I think are obviously not working real well.”

Injury data for the 2017 season released by the NFL in January showed a season-over-season increase in concussions suffered by players, which the league attributed in part to a rise in self-reporting of symptoms.

Data compiled by IQVIA, an independent third party retained by the NFL, showed a 13.5 percent increase in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017 (243 to 281) over the preseason and regular season. The increase comes after 28 percent of concussion evaluations came following self-reporting by players, a 9-point increase over the previous year.

Former Ravens running back Justin Forsett said the rule could open the door for an increase in injuries.

“There have been rule changes in the past, and guys adjusted,” said Forsett, who will serve as the team’s sideline reporter at road games for on-air radio broadcasts. “Maybe this will be another adjustment period, but I just think that for so long, this has been ingrained in us — being able to lower your pad level, your helmet level. So I think it could be difficult, and I think it could lead to injuries, especially when you’ve got to think about it. When you’ve got to go out there and think on the football field and think about where you’re placing your body instead of just reacting, that could be dangerous.”

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The encouraging sign for the Ravens is it appears whatever adjustments they have been making are working. Since getting cited three times for violating the helmet rule against Chicago, the team has gone through the past two preseason games without a similar transgression.

How the NFL and officials will enforce the new policy in the regular season has been a talking point in the discussion about the game’s perceived physicality.

Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo wore a cap during training camp that read “Make Football Violent Again,” and Johnson, a former Ravens linebacker, questioned the validity of the helmet rule.

“In my opinion, it’s all a big public relations move,” he said. “I think they’re just trying to wipe their hands and say, ‘We’re doing the best we can. It’s on the players.’ They’re changing a game that I love. I love playing physical. I do understand the guys out there that have legitimate head injuries, but I don’t know, it’s a fine line.”

Some fans, already frustrated by the stoppages of play, are also concerned about how the rule might affect games.

"I dislike the helmet rule because of the stupid 15-yard penalty," said Pete Dejtisakdi, a Ravens fan from Gaithersburg. "Some of it is BS because the next thing you know, a team is in the red zone. And certain players hold back. I guess that is making the game soft. It's terrible in my opinion. Still, it's my favorite professional sport, and I will continue watching until they take off the pads and put flags around their waists."

Among the current crop of Ravens players, the keyword was adapt.

“I always wrap people up and stuff like that,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “But now that I’m actually in more space, I have to be conscious of that. I have to be conscious of, that’s the rules, and if I want to play this game, I have to abide by the rules.”

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