The Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears kicked off the preseason Thursday night in Canton, Ohio for the Hall of Fame Game. The Ravens won the contest, 17-16, but one of the big storylines heading into the game was how the NFL's new helmet rule would be officiated.
It didn't take long to find out.
Ravens linebacker Patrick Onwuasor was the first player this year to be flagged for the illegal use of a helmet penalty, when he dipped his head making a tackle on Bears running back Benny Cunningham less than five minutes into the contest.
In all, there were three helmet rule violations on Ravens defenders in the game. Players beware, this is the new reality in the NFL.
The new NFL rule states that "it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. Contact does not have to be to an opponent's head or neck area — lowering the head and initiating contact to an opponent's torso, hips, and lower body, is also a foul."
This also applies to ball carries and blockers, but defensive players seem to be the most at risk of being penalized. Onwuasor's contact was a clear violation of the new rule.
The NFL wants the helmet taken out of the game, and it makes sense for player safety. Last year Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a very scary and significant injury after he initiated contact with his helmet making a tackle. No good comes from players leading with their helmet, and the league wants it out of the game. Players will not only be penalized (15 yards), but are also subject to fines and suspensions.
"A lot of the new helmet rule and stuff like that that we are going through is just education in the classroom," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. "I think me as a coach, and I have been doing this for a little while, I have never ever taught anybody to hit with the top of their head and really no coach ever has.
"We have a poster that has been in our locker room I think since 1940, like it's the same poster. It's bow the neck and put it in between your shoulder pads. The league is doing everything they can to educate and make sure the science backs up everything that we have been teaching and I think that just helps the players understand how important it is that they listen."
NFL officials were in Allen Park Thursday and Friday to give the players a thorough presentation on the league's new playing rules for 2018, including what they're looking at when it pertains to the new helmet rule.
"We wanted to make sure that the language of the rule is understood," NFL referee Brad Allen said. "So, we're talking about lowering the head, initiating and then making contact with any part of the helmet. It's not just the crown, that's a little bit of a culture change, it includes the forehead hairline, does not include the facemask. That part we wanted to make sure was clear.
"The other piece that was asked about was who's watching it and we're treating the UOH (use of helmet) foul exactly like we do other fouls. Whoever's area of proper coverage it is needs to see the entire play. Those two things are what we tried to relay to the players. The language, the usage and then how we're going to cover it."
Allen said the players, coaches and his officiating crew had a good, professional discussion about all the new rules for the 2018 season. He also said that in the two days his crew has been in Allen Park for practice they've witnessed zero helmet infractions.
Longtime Lions linebacker Chris Spielman, who made 1,181 career tackles over a 10-year career, was asked about the helmet rule after he was in town to take in Thursday's practice in Allen Park.
He said it's very possible for a player to go through the course of an entire football game and not get a flagged for illegal use of the helmet, if they keep these three things in mind.
"Eyes up, head up, wrap up," Spielman said. "If your eyes are up, you're never ducking your head. I'll never say you won't get injured, but your risk for injury goes down significantly because of the position of your head, you won't miss a tackle, and the game will be better for it and safer, so I'm a proponent of the rule, I just think it needs to start being coached whenever a kid steps on the field."