x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

NFL's bad boys behave

There were no cringe-inducing hits on Sunday — nothing like those James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather and Dunta Robinson delivered last weekend in a spate of vicious plays.

Hines Ward, No 86, of the Steelers, gets tackled by the Dolphins’ Sean Smith, No 24, on Sunday.
Hines Ward, No 86, of the Steelers, gets tackled by the Dolphins’ Sean Smith, No 24, on Sunday.

Sean Smith, the Miami Dolphins cornerback, had Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver, lined up, ready to deliver a big hit.

But instead of going high, he went for Ward's legs. No fine or penalty for that one, and Ward was out for only one play.

It was the sort of play that, on most Sundays, would have gone unnoticed.

This week was different, though, because it marked the first games since the NFL said it would be cracking down on illegal hits, handing out fines and threatening suspensions.

There were no cringe-inducing hits on Sunday - nothing like those James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather and Dunta Robinson delivered last weekend in a spate of vicious plays that drew hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, along with reminders that the league would begin watching more closely.

By sending out warnings - a memo from Roger Goodell, the commissioner, a video showing legal and illegal hits, lists sent to coaches letting them know which players have multiple unnecessary roughness penalties - the NFL is looking for more certainty in a sport that has many shades of grey.

One thing that was clear: no players were penalised for illegal hits to the head this week, giving the league reason to believe its message got through.

"I've seen a change in players' behaviour in one week," Carl Johnson, the NFL officiating chief, said on NBC's Football Night in America.

The Steelers' Harrison returned to the field after a tumultuous week in which he received a US$75,000 (Dh275,460) fine and briefly threatened to retire. He called it business as usual - except for one play, when he saw Ronnie Brown, the Dolphins running back, coming across the middle.

"I had a chance to put my head in there, and it looked like he was crouching down," Harrison said. "I didn't want to get a helmet-to-helmet [hit]. I didn't put my face in there, and he went down, and luckily he didn't scamper for another 10 or 15 yards."

Harrison was not the only player who said he had the NFL's tougher stance on his mind.

"For sure," Jon Beason, the Carolina linebacker, said. "I definitely think you'll think about it; $75,000 is crazy."

In Cleveland's victory over New Orleans, the Super Bowl champions, Scott Fujita, the Browns linebacker, thought he saw defenders going low when they might have had clean shots higher up.

"Now you've got guys whose ankles are going to be taken out and knees are going to get blown up," Fujita said, "so it's kind of a Catch 22 if you ask me."

Baltimore's notoriously hard-hitting defence gave up a season-high 34 points before pulling out an overtime victory over Buffalo, and some Ravens were thinking about the rules. Players in both defensive backfields appeared to give up chances for big hits on receivers, going after the ball instead.