There are many things that take place in the NFL that rightfully make current players question just how seriously the league takes ‘player safety’ initiatives. A couple of them occurred this week, and Pittsburgh Steelers veteran Cameron Heyward, who is the team’s union rep, sounded off on both.
During Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, tight end T.J. Hockenson executed a cut block on Heyward’s teammate, T.J. Watt. Both tried to go low, and the tight end connected with the edge rusher’s knee. He went down, and eventually walked off the field gingerly, exiting the game.
This was the second such cut block that injured a pass rusher this week. The New York Giants also suffered from a similar incident endured by their first-round pick, Kayvon Thibodeaux, who will now miss time due to the injury.
“I know it’s a legal play right now”, Heyward told reporters after the game, but questions why, as he told Jeff Hathhorn for 93.7 The Fan. “We’ve cleaned up where the DB can’t shoot the gap and go at the O-lineman. We should work towards player safety, because it’s a bang-bang play where a tight end goes up and goes straight for your knees. Luckily T.J. isn’t fully injured”.
Indeed, head coach Mike Tomlin suggested at halftime that if this were a regular season game, there might be consideration that he could return in the second half. There is optimism, accordingly, that he should be ready for the start of the regular season.
For as much as the playing rules have slanted toward the offense in the name of safety, however, there still remain a number of elements of offensive football that are dangerous to defensive players in ways that are not necessarily essentially to football—such as these threatening low blocks. And just to clear up any potential confusion, ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ is the verbiage the NFL uses in the official rulebook to describe conduct allowed or not allowed. This is obviously not a matter of law.
As long as offenses are allowed to do it, they will, of course, continue to do so. Now, there have been steps taken in recent years to limit the types of blocks that are allowed, and the nature in which they are allowed, but this is an issue that has been raised by defensive players for many years.
Perhaps Heyward can help take up the cause next offseason and push for a rule change to address player safety in this way. There is just the hint of irony of the broadcast of the same game in which a star defender was injured from a dangerous legal block also prominently featured a piece on the league’s adoption of the ‘guardian’ helmet caps aimed to reduce the impact of head injuries during practice.
Even that, players, and only at certain positions, were required to wear through the second preseason game, so they don’t even have to wear it now. If it protects players in August, it protects them in December, too.