“Helmet-to-helmet” & “defenseless receiver” rules still leave players, fans puzzled


A large topic of debate in the NFL recently has been player safety. In response to the increased number of head injuries due to helmet-to-helmet contact, the league has recently started to issue fines and penalties for when such hits occur. As we saw this past Sunday during the AFC Championship game, the NFL officials have started to show some major inconsistencies when it comes to what kinds of hits constitute a penalty flag.

Although many fans and former players have expressed displeasure with the way the NFL’s new safety rules have softened the game, commissioner Roger Goodell has decided to continue instituting new rules to protect players. This decision is the commissioner’s to make and he does have plenty of reasons to justify it. However, the most frustrating part that has driven fans crazy is how inconsistently these rules have been enforced on the field.

The AFC Championship game showcased numerous helmet-to-helmet hits, some of which were flagged and some which were not. Ravens’ safety Bernard Pollard was flagged for shoulder-to-helmet contact, and linebacker Ray Lewis was flagged for helmet-to-helmet contact, both being against defenseless receivers. According to the NFL rules, these were both correct calls, but the biggest problem was the consistency with which these types of plays were called during the rest of the game.

One of the most controversial plays of the game was Jerod Mayo’s hit on Dennis Pitta. Pitta ran a quick route across the middle, caught the ball, and was completely decked by Mayo, causing Pitta’s head to snap back in what was visually an extremely viscous hit. To much surprise, no flags were thrown and after viewing the replay, it does appear that Mayo’s helmet makes contact with Pitta’s, which should constitute a flag. Additionally, Pitta was unable to protect himself after completing the catch nor clearly became a runner with possession. Because of this, Pitta is therefore defenseless receiver and cannot be hit until he becomes a runner with possession of the ball. Although Mayo led with his shoulder and some can argue that his helmet did not make contact with Pitta’s helmet, the defenseless receiver rule still comes into play and justifies a flag.

Ravens fans know this all too well.

The fact that a flag was not thrown on this play is simply puzzling. From what we’ve seen in the past, referees are supposed to error on the side of caution and throw flags when a big hit is made on a receiver, whether legal or not. A great example of this was in week 15 when Seahawks’ safety Kam Chancellor legally struck 49ers’ tight end Vernon Davis. The hit was extremely jarring and drew several flags, despite perfectly legal contact. It was simply the brutality of the hit that caused the penalty.

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By this logic, a flag should have been thrown for Jerod Mayo’s hit. This again displays the league’s utter lack of consistency when officiating games. Whether fans agree with the rules or not is not the point. It’s simply that if rules are to be implemented, they should be done so in a way that makes them followed by all teams, all the time.

While it is hard to make quick judgments on such bang-bang plays, the league should simply make these sorts of hits reviewable to remove human error from the equation. Although the commissioner is all about cutting down the time of NFL games by quickening replays, you can’t allow such controversial plays to continue affecting the outcome of games.

We have seen defenses make big stops on third downs countless times this year, only to have a penalty flag thrown for a questionable hit on a defenseless receiver that keeps the drive alive for the offense. For the NFL to continue allowing such plays to have such a major effect on games is not only a disservice to the fans, but to the game itself.

Either make these rules fair, or don’t make them at all.

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About Riley Babcock

Riley Babcock
Riley Babcock was born and raised in Maryland where he took a big interest towards sports at a young age. The Baltimore Ravens soon became his main interest which led to his eventual hiring as Editor of the Ravens blog, Ebony Bird, in early March of  2011. Riley is an...more

8 Raves on ““Helmet-to-helmet” & “defenseless receiver” rules still leave players, fans puzzled

  1. PalukaRaven on said:

    Agreed about the inconsistencies of refs throwing flags for hits on defenseless receivers as well as leading with the helmet on helmet-to-helmet tackles. Historically, it seems the Patriots are notorious for being on the “right side” of the calls when it comes to these types of plays, as evident by Brady’s cheap shot kick, as well as Mayo’s hit on Pitta. With that said, I was a bit surprised a flag was not thrown when Pollard knocked out Ridley even though Ridley was the one who lowered his helmet first.

  2. Greg on said:

    they’ll never make this reviewable. They want it to be penalizing so people stop going for big time hits and allowing review lets players still do it and hope for a review.

    Having said that, our hits in the title game were critical in retrospect. The pats skill players were looking over their shoulder alot and Welker’s drop was such a huge play for us. Props to our guys for hitting hard, taking a cash hit, in order to get an intimidation factor on them and win the game big.

    • Greg on said:

      but still the refs need to be instructed on hits where the WR lowers their head. The most bogus hit out of all of them (actually probably the only truly bogus one) was the Hernandez catch. He so obviously lowered his head and if receivers are seeking out head shots well, that I think has to really be differentiated. The hit on Pitta was a good no -call, bad as it looked, and the Welker hit was definitely a penalty. But the Hernandez one was a big time duck.

  3. Kevin (Pennsylvania_ on said:

    You are wrong about this rule. Please review the rule in its entirety. Contact may occur on a defenseless receiver as long as it is not prohibited contact. Prohibited contact includes contact to the head and neck of a defenseless receiver and the act commonly known as spearing. Under your definition, not contact would be able to occur until the receiver gains possession, which would mean that defenders also would not be allowed to hit QBs in the context of throwing. If Pitta was hit to the head, which is a close call as I could not tell personally, then that would be a penalty. Here is a link to the rule from the NFL:


    • Kevin (Pennsylvania_ on said:

      I was unclear. No contact would be able to occur to the QB in the act of throwing not because of the receiver definition but because the prohibited contact is necessary for a penalty to occur to ALL defenseless players whether it be a QB in the act of throwing, QB after a change of possession, punt returner fielding a punt, etc.

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