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Big Hit 5
Cleveland browns safety Brian Russell had to make just such a timely decision on the second weekend of last season. The Browns were trailing the Bengals 34-10 late in the fourth quarter when Cincinnati lined up in a four-wideout set on third-and-seven from its 48-yard line. Receiver Chad Johnson was split widest; across from him, Russell, a 6' 2", 207-pound hitting machine, was lined up 12 yards deep, on the hash mark.
At the snap Johnson shook free from bump-and-run corner Leigh Bodden and ran a tight slant. Quarterback Carson Palmer took a three-step drop and released the ball 1.9 seconds after the snap, but the pass was high and behind Johnson. Russell had read the play from the start. "They're way ahead [on the scoreboard], so they're probably not going to throw a deep ball," says Russell. "That means I'm not going to fly out of there in my backpedal. I'm sitting flat-footed and looking to drive forward on the ball. Chad Johnson was real wide, so I'm thinking slant.
"Once I see the receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback.At that point you get a fraction of a second to decide if you're going for the ball or going for the hit. You go on instinct. I didn't think I could get there for the interception, so the decision is made. I'll go for the hit. You run downhill to the man, and if you get there a little early, they throw the flag. If you try to stop and wait, to time it perfectly all the time, you'll never make any plays. This is the game we play. I have to be physical. You have to pull the trigger and make a play."
Bodden jumped the cut and intercepted the ball in front of Johnson, who was reaching back, fully extended and wide open for Russell's blow. Russell went airborne and connected with Johnson in the upper chest and chin. Johnson's helmet flew off his head, and his body went limp and fell sideways to the ground. He lay there for 46 seconds before rising and walking slowly off the field.
Johnson, who declined to talk with SI about the hit, stood bleeding on the sideline while the game clock expired. In the postgame locker room he was glassy-eyed. When reporters asked Johnson about the play and he was unable to recall it, Bengals' p.r. director Jack Brennan cut short the interview session. Johnson received stitches in his chin and suffered a concussion, but he played the following weekend in a win over Pittsburgh.
As a safety who frequently plays in the Cover Two defense, Russell is at the epicenter of the NFL's big-hit conundrum. His essential job in that popular scheme is to break on wideouts and deliver monster shots. Yet the league is trying to crack down on helmet hits and other dangerous plays.
"I try to lead with a shoulder," says Russell, who became a free agent after the season and signed with the Seattle Seahawks, "but in the middle of a play there's no time to stop and wonder if you're doing it right. And while you're hitting with your shoulder pads, you can't put your helmet in your pocket. It's right there."
PADS? WHO NEEDS PADS?
NFL players are stunningly unprotected. Rules require only that they wear a helmet and shoulder pads. Many players wear no more protection than that. "Big old pads?" says the Ravens' Lewis. "The game is too fast for that." (Contrast this with college football: The NCAA requires that every player wear not only the helmet and shoulder pads but also soft knee pads, thigh pads, hip pads and a tailbone protector.)