Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations and the man responsible for doling out fines for illegal hits, is certain the league's push to improve player safety is working. He cited as proof a play from Sunday's Chargers-Chiefs game in San Diego, when San Diego safety Steve Gregory had Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe in the cross-hairs for a big hit. But rather than launch his body or go high for the tackle, Gregory delivered a hard shot to the chest.
"In the old days the defensive player would have gone to the head or neck," said Anderson, who watched the 19-yard reception from the sideline. "Instead he went lower and made a solid, physical hit to the chest. That's legal. That's what we're after."
The NFL's crackdown on hits to the head and neck of defenseless receivers and unprotected quarterbacks has generated significant discussion since last October, when a handful of violent hits above the shoulders resulted in heightened enforcement of player safety rules.
The new scrutiny has been obvious this season. Through the first two weeks, defenses were cited 16 times for roughing the passer fouls. At that pace, teams would finish with 128 roughing penalties for the year, 37 more than in 2010 but seven shy of the league high in 2004. And so far this season, officials have enforced 32 personal fouls—including hits against defenseless receivers—putting the league on pace for 256 overall, 18 more than in '10.
Anderson says game observers have reported seeing a change in how defenders are tackling, a development acknowledged by Bowe. "They're not taking those kill shots like they used to," he says. "That's going to extend players' careers on both sides of the ball."