GREEN BAY – A day after Clay Matthews hit Kirk Cousins and spun the NFL into its latest apoplectic fever, Mike McCarthy defiantly stuck to his principles.
The Green Bay Packers were not changing how they tackled, he said. Coaches would teach the same fundamentals. It was the league that had to adjust.
Quietly, the Packers plotted a different course. In their only practice last week, a Thursday afternoon session in pads, equipment managers arranged landing pads and tackle dummies inside the Don Hutson Center. Pass rushers bent around the edge and took aim, a drill the Packers' defense has done for years.
This time, tacklers changed one critical aspect. Instead of wrapping their arms around the dummy at contact, they kept their arms straight, gliding over like an airplane.
“A lot easier done on a dummy,” Matthews said Monday, “than a live body.”
In fact, there’s nothing easy about hitting a quarterback this season. Matthews has found out more than anyone how riddled it’s become. He’s the first player since at least 2001 to be called for roughing the passer in each of the season’s first three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Before this season, the 10th-year linebacker had only four roughing penalties in his career.
After his hit on Cousins erased a Packers victory, Matthews implemented the changes Sunday in Washington. He took a similar, inside route to quarterback Alex Smith, hitting him in the midsection the same as Cousins, placing his helmet to the side. But Matthews wrapped Smith above the waist, careful not to scoop his legs and drive him into the ground.
Then there was this subtle detail: Immediately upon landing, Matthews unwrapped Smith and spread his hands wide. His momentum continued to glide over the quarterback, just as he’d been instructed during the week.
Given Matthews’ adjustments, not to mention the Packers' genuine effort to tackle differently, it’s no wonder McCarthy was enraged on the sideline. Matthews merely paused on the field, crouched with elbows on knees, staring straight down.
“So disappointed,” Matthews said at the end of a long rant inside the visitors’ locker room at FedEx Field. “I tried to change from last week, and still get the flag.”
One year after emergency summits to settle the national anthem controversy, the NFL finds itself once again embroiled in a storm. This one strikes deeper even than player protests, to the very foundation of the game. As the league’s competition committee convened for a conference call Tuesday, the on-field product teetered in the balance.
Coaches and players throughout the league are at a loss trying to understand the new quarterback contact rules, and the worst part isn’t the calls themselves, but the utter confusion they’ve created.
“These guys are playing out of fear of losing paychecks,” Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said.
Green Bay has become the controversy’s epicenter, but it stretches to the other 31 franchises. Seattle pass rusher Tyrone Crawford was penalized for laying hands on Dak Prescott’s back. Tampa Bay’s Jason Pierre-Paul was penalized for patting Ben Roethlisberger on the head. Buffalo’s Nate Orchard was penalized for effectively giving Cousins an overzealous hug.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose son Stephen Jones is on the NFL’s competition committee, told a local radio station this week he’s never seen a rule so fundamentally change the game. Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, also a member of the competition committee, was unavailable to comment for this story because he’s attending league meetings in New York City.
“I don’t run the league office,” Matthews said, “but you’d like to see football be football.”
Hitting the quarterback is part of football. This season, especially, it has become an endangered play. There have been 34 roughing penalties in the NFL through the first three weeks, more than double the 16 called at this time last year. The Packers have been called for five roughing penalties this season. Their only roughing penalty last season was in Week 11.
The conversation has centered on what pass rushers can’t do. Don’t hit the quarterback’s helmet. Don’t hit below his knees. Don’t hit him late. Don’t land on him. But if legal hits are becoming rarer, they still exist.
"I think they're getting soft," Matthews said.
Examining what pass rushers actually can do shines a light on just how soft the game has become.
Hug and cuddle
Kenny Clark said he won’t hesitate. If he gets his shot to hit a quarterback hard, the Packers defensive tackle swears he’ll still take it. Football is about aggression, yes. Physicality, always.
In its intended form, Clark said, the game includes hard hits.
“When I go into a game,” he said, “I’m still going to try to play fast. A quarterback, if I get a chance to hit him, I’m going to hit him. I’m not going to think twice.”
So call it coincidence that Clark’s lone sack this season looked more like a pillow fight than a Chuck Bednarik shiver.
Clark circumvented the body-weight rule by flipping it around. After shedding Vikings right guard Mike Remmers, Clark took a direct path to Cousins. He could have hit the quarterback as hard as he wanted, but instead Clark twisted his body and pulled Cousins down on top of him.
“It’s kind of tough,” Clark said, “to kind of figure out ways to do that and not put yourself in a position where you might hurt yourself. When I tackled him, that’s what I thought in my head. Like as I was tackling him, ‘I’m in a weird position right now.’ Because my leg was kind of under me, and he was falling on top of me.”
Clark said he wasn’t necessarily trying to avoid the body-weight penalty. In the moment, there isn’t time to calculate.
Looking back, Clark said he wouldn’t be surprised if more sacks are finished the same way.
He also wonders whether that sort of play will backfire. A defender running through the quarterback might or might not end with a body-on-body crash to the ground. If a pass rusher pulls the quarterback down on top of him, it’s unavoidable. Clark believes such plays put the pass rusher at a significantly higher risk for injury.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Clark said last week. “I can see how it can be a danger to us.”
Clark’s suspicions were prophetic.
On Sunday, Miami Dolphins defensive end William Hayes tore the ACL in his right knee while landing awkwardly trying to avoid falling on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Hayes swung his legs wide to alter his body weight while sacking Carr, twisting his right knee when his foot caught on the field.
Outside linebacker Nick Perry used a similar move late in the Packers' opener. Instead of running through the tackle, Perry wrapped Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s waist and swung his legs around. His momentum brought Trubisky down on top of him.
“Because it’s football,” Perry said, “there’s going to be collisions. There has to be some leeway in how we react to those hits when we’re free hitters, or when we’re coming really fast and we want to stop.”
In the locker room Wednesday, Clark was shown video of Hayes’ hit for the first time. His eyebrows arched as he saw how awkward the Dolphins pass rusher flung his legs sideways. Is this the new NFL? No, Clark isn’t willing to tear up a knee.
“They call a penalty on that, too?” Clark asked.
They did not. Clark, a paid defender, couldn’t tell.
Near the end of a two-minute rant that came as close to unfiltered, unapologetic venting as you’ll find in today’s NFL, Matthews arrived at an epiphany.
“Maybe now,” he said inside FedEx Field, “pass rushers and guys getting after the quarterback, you just have to attack the ball.”
The overused joke is to put a red practice jersey on quarterbacks, the one attached with an assumed “do not touch” sign. But the league appears to be steering closer and closer to that edge.
Matthews isn’t the only Packers defender affected by the confusion. Perry was flagged in the opener for effectively bumping into Trubisky, the way two people might at a crowded subway. Mike Daniels had a clear sack against Cousins, but he quit the play after a pump fake because he thought the quarterback no longer had the football and wanted to avoid a penalty.
“It’s the subconscious,” McCarthy said. “It’s affecting the rush defenders some, and I think we can’t deny that.”
There’s a reason finishing a pass rush has always meant running directly through the quarterback. Pull up early, and defenders are bound to look foolish. They have so many variables to consider, even after beating a 300-pound offensive lineman’s block.
A quarterback can pump fake and prolong a play. Near the sideline, he can turn up field instead of running out of bounds. It takes an elite play to attack the football. Usually, strip-sacks are reserved for only the best pass rushers.
In Week 2, Chicago’s Khalil Mack sacked Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson without contacting his body. Mack beat Seahawks tight end Nick Vannett on the line of scrimmage, then a second block from right tackle Germaine Ifedi, before swiping the football out of Wilson’s hand from behind.
Perhaps therein lies the answer. To legally hit a quarterback now, just play like Khalil Mack.
“I’ll probably start attacking the ball more,” Matthews said, “but it’s so hard. Because you’re going full speed against a tackle who weighs 300-plus pounds, and within two steps you’ve got to back off. You’ve got to back off of the quarterback now. So that’s what’s difficult.
“After nine years of doing it one way in the NFL successfully, now it just seems that way doesn’t work. And it’s frustrating.”
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