“Why is it that we’re being penalized for something that we’re supposed to be doing?”
Like so many of the NFL’s sack masters, Saints star defensive end Cameron Jordan is at a loss. “Hit the quarterback, but don’t. Sack the quarterback and help your team out, but before he lands, put a pillow underneath his head, read him a bedtime story — all after asking if you can invade his personal space.”
Technically, the rules are the same as they ever were. Only five of the 1,108 words that make up the roughing the passer penalty were actually changed over the 2018 offseason, allowing the league to bill the edits as a “point of emphasis” instead of a major revision. But ask any player about how it’s actually been enforced this season, and you’ll be greeted by a chorus of deep sighs, eye rolls, and groans; search the term on Twitter, and you’ll find countless now-viral videos of sacks where everything would seem to be in order ... until the flags fly.
According to 10 defensive linemen and linebackers around the NFL who spoke to SB Nation, the NFL’s re-emphasis on not putting one’s full body weight on the quarterback has fundamentally changed the way they play their positions, putting both their health and their bottom lines in jeopardy.
“The referees said that [the re-emphasis] wasn’t going to be that invasive to the game, but it’s been a major rule change,” says Jordan.
“I think it affects every D-lineman, honestly,” adds Falcons defensive tackle Jack Crawford. “I haven’t hit the quarterback when I normally would.”
The numbers support their assessment: Roughing the passer penalties are up 72 percent over the first five weeks of the season (with offsetting penalties), including calls that have drawn attention from perplexed fans, coaches, and even quarterbacks themselves for reasons that have nothing to do with the body-weight clause of the rule.
It’s clear protecting the passer on every front has never been more of a priority for officials, and that’s frustrating for defensive players who already felt stifled by the league’s rules, which have grown ever more detailed in service of protecting offensive players over the past 25 years.
Before the 1994 season, the NFL made roughing the passer (and a slew of other safety-related rules) a point of emphasis in response to games that had become “dull” defensive battles. Throughout the aughts, a series of new adjustments further hindered the movement of defenses — and made referees’ already tough jobs that much more challenging.
“The Brady rule” came in 2009, preventing defensive players from diving at quarterbacks’ knees and lower legs after Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2008. Jordan believes this year’s rule shift will become known as the “Aaron Rodgers rule,” since Rodgers broke his collarbone after a hit from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr last season (though Rodgers was outside the pocket, and Barr did not land on him).
“The proof is that this season’s had the highest-scoring games the NFL’s ever seen,” he adds. “Why? Because you’re not allowed to hit a defenseless player, you’re not allowed to hit quarterbacks a certain way, you’re not allowed to chop at a wide receiver in a certain way. Deacon Jones didn’t have to face this. Reggie White, Chris Doleman, and Joey Browner didn’t have to worry about how they hit somebody.”
Jordan paraphrases Jones, inventor of the term “sack” and a brutal defender who famously said that the move is like “devastating a city or creaming a multitude of people.”
“‘A sack is when you annihilate the hope of another team’ — this rule takes the whole game out of that context.”
According to NFL D-linemen and linebackers, the shift in enforcement has required a mental calibration as much as a physical one. Suddenly, there’s a moment of uncertainty in the middle of a move that’s long been second nature for most NFL players.
“It’s hard enough just to get back to the quarterback, you know?” says Giants defensive end Kerry Wynn, now in his fifth season in the league. “Now when you get there, you have to think, OK, let me not land on him, on top of the usual, Don’t hit them low, don’t hit them high. It’s almost like we’re playing two-hand touch on the quarterback — that’s what it’s coming to.”
Running down that mental checklist runs directly counter to prevailing football wisdom, which, as Jordan describes it, dictates that “a fast wrong decision is better than a slow right decision.”
In Week 2, Packers defensive end Mike Daniels memorably let Kirk Cousins go after wrapping him up because he thought that Cousins threw the ball while he was tackling. As he explained after the game, “If I wrap him and take him down ... I fall on the quarterback [and get a penalty], but now it’s like, ‘Oh, Mike, you’re an idiot.’ So I don’t know.”
“It should have been a plus for his team, but because of this rule, now he’s got it in his head that he has to let a quarterback go,” says Jordan of the Daniels play. “You don’t work that hard to let somebody go.”
Hesitating at any point in their well-rehearsed tackling process also makes players feel more prone to injury. “If you try to change how you tackle, then you throw everything off — you’re playing scared, playing apprehensive,” says Giants rookie Lorenzo Carter. “When you play apprehensive or scared, you increase the chances of hurting yourself.”
Nevertheless, D-linemen and linebackers feel like they have no choice but to try to adjust their tackling styles. The question they still haven’t been able to answer, though, is what tweaks will appease NFL officials while still allowing them to do their job: taking down the quarterback.
“The way they’re calling it, you have to change something,” says Giants defensive end Kareem Martin, who’s notched three sacks so far this year. “I see what they’re trying to do, but you’ve got to think about the defensive player: I’ve got all my weight going down, and you want me to flip over and not land on the quarterback. How am I going to do that while I’m in the air, or have a foot planted? If you make too sudden of a move, you put yourself at risk.”
As a result, in 2018 players talk about sacking as though they’re trying to solve a high-stakes brain teaser. “It’s almost like you’ve gotta dive at them and wrap them up along the way,” says Jordan Jenkins. “I’m definitely trying to just lead with the shoulder more, because if you do anything headfirst — or just try to wrap them up head-on — you’re done. Honestly, you just have to try to slam them to the ground and land to the side.”
“Some guys put their arms out to show [the refs] like, ‘I’m trying not to put all my weight on him, I’m trying to pull back,’” adds Martin. “But, just ... physics aren’t allowing me to fall off this guy without then not protecting myself.”
The worst has already happened, in a play that sent shockwaves through NFL locker rooms: Dolphins defensive end William Hayes tore his ACL after a Week 3 sack on Derek Carr. Hayes, who was in his 11th season in the NFL, caught his foot in the ground while trying not to put his full weight on Carr in order to avoid a penalty, according to his coach Adam Gase.
“After I saw that, I decided that if I ever get in that situation I’m just going to land on the guy because I’m not going to risk my career to save someone else’s,” says Jenkins. “It’s stupid that he even had to put himself in that situation. At that point you have to ask, who’s at fault there? The league’s at fault for that. They’re the reason he got hurt.”
“The league just looks at it like, ‘Oh, it’s a casualty of the game,’” says Jordan. “But it didn’t have to be. It should have been a regular sack. He would have landed on the quarterback, gotten up, and the quarterback would have been OK or not. But the quarterback has that risk for the one day a week he gets hit.”
In Week 3, Jordan came close to facing an injury of his own during a sack on Matt Ryan. “I hit him from the back so he immediately lurched forward, and on contact it was like, Brakesbrakesbrakes — I almost sprained my wrist,” he says.
Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland has also seen the physical consequences of trying to change his technique to stay out of foul trouble. “In Miami, I was coming through clean and ended up turning my head away from Ryan Tannehill to avoid getting a penalty,” he says of his Week 2 sack, so far his only one of the season. “As a result, I got a stinger and part of my body was numb. I put my own body at risk to make sure I didn’t hurt [the quarterback], or get the penalty and hurt my team.”
The other potential cost of a sack for defensive players is, of course, money.
“You’re second-guessing yourself throughout the whole thing: do you want to make the play and risk getting fined? Or do you want to not make the play, and maybe get [credit for] the pressure?,” says Jordan Jenkins, who’s having a career season with 2.5 sacks as of Week 5. Jenkins was fined $20,054 after sacking Kirk Cousins during the preseason and receiving one of the week’s more controversial roughing the passer penalties. That’s roughly half of a game check for the Georgia alum, who’s still on his rookie deal. And players don’t get game checks in the preseason (any player beyond their first season is paid $1,900 weekly).
“It’s a double-edged sword,” concludes Jenkins, whose fine was ultimately reduced after an appeal.
“A lot of guys can’t afford to get hit with a $20,000 fine, especially guys coming in from college or the older guys who haven’t hit a seven- or eight-figure deal,” explains Giants veteran defensive tackle John Jenkins. For those players — guys like Jordan Jenkins — trying to get a sack is even more fraught. If they don’t try to get the QB down, they won’t wind up with the stats to get a big deal; if they do, they might get a fine that wipes out a solid percentage of their current salary.
Even for the veterans, the possibility of being fined for doing the very thing they were hired to do is endlessly frustrating.
“It just sucks that after a game, you have to worry about whether you’re going to get a FedEx on your stool even though you may not have gotten flagged for [a penalty] in the game,” says Wynn. “You’re watching film like, ‘Oh, I wonder if this will be the one that they fine me for.’ It’s kind of sad. I mean our job is to hit the quarterback, and it’s like we can’t even do that now.”
All the defensive players who spoke to SB Nation emphasized that they understood the league’s decision to prioritize protecting quarterbacks, who are so often deemed the faces of NFL franchises — and worthy of its largest contracts.
“But at the end of the day, I don’t like the fact that you’re basically saying that person’s body is more important than mine,” says Copeland. “I’m out here playing as hard as I can, just like them.”
Other players point to the fact that quarterbacks are already the most protected players on the field. “It seems like overkill to try to protect quarterbacks when quarterbacks get hit ... seven times a game, once a week?” says Carter. Every other position group (besides specialists) takes contact at every practice, and on every play. And as the defenders are quick to note, they’re vulnerable to injury, too.
“I understand that it’s a quarterback-driven league and people love seeing points,” says Wynn. “But what about offensive linemen cutting at defensive linemen’s knees? There are people on our side of the ball who also get paid a lot of money, but who aren’t being protected nearly as much as other positions are.”
What the NFL’s defensive players want more than anything is consistency. An official clarification two weeks ago from the NFL’s Competition Committee hasn’t made calls any easier to understand, and until there’s a discernible pattern, going for a sack will always feel like a huge risk. “From crew to crew they’ve called it differently: some are easy calls and then others ... well, you’ve seen the videos,” says Martin. “Now they say they’re only going to call it if it’s absolute and clear, but what does absolute and clear look like?” adds Jordan Jenkins.
“They have to make sure they have a consistent definition of what that rule is before they’re enforcing it like they are, because it’s ultimately affecting games,” Copeland says. “They’re asking a lot of us, and ultimately their hope is that the game will evolve — that guys will be able to tackle the quarterback and somehow, magically fall off and roll into the air. In the meantime, I guess we’re going through the growing pains.”
At least while the NFL Competition Committee tries to figure out a way for 300-pound men to take slightly smaller men to the ground in five seconds without hurting them, the D-linemen and linebackers who can afford it are committed to their own private revolution against an increasingly offense-oriented game. “If anything, it makes me want to put more hits on a quarterback,” says Jordan. “If I wanted to be soft, I’d go play soccer or basketball or something.”
“It’s difficult to try to do our jobs, but I just go out there and if they’re going to fine me, they’re going to fine me,” says Jets linebacker Avery Williamson, grinning. “I can’t [change my technique], it’s too late for me now.”
Jeanna Thomas contributed to this report.