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Bill Belichick underplays new NFL targeting rule, which threatens to wreak havoc across league

Alex Reimer
August 01, 2018 - 2:12 pm

Get ready for another NFL season pouring over fine print and debating semantics. There was one big change to the rulebook this year, and it could torpedo games like never before.

Refere Clete Blakeman stopped by Foxboro Monday to explain the NFL’s new initiatives. The catch rule was clarified, with the league mandating that a receiver must possess control of the ball, place two feet down, complete a football move or –– and here’s the ambiguous part –– have the ability to perform such an act. Once again, there’s room for subjective reasoning. 

Patriots wideout Chris Hogan, for one, doesn’t seem like he has a clearer grasp of the situation. “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said about the new catch rule, per the Globe’s Ben Volin

As confusing as the catch rule still is, the new targeting mandate promises to unleash chaos. The rule says players will be penalized 15 yards and potentially fined or ejected for lowering their heads to make contact with their helmet against opponents. It applies to tacklers, linemen and ball carriers.

While helmet-to-helmet hits have been illegal for years, this initiative takes it one step further. The letter of the law appears to indicate that defenders could be punished for simply lowering their heads in an effort to make previously legal tackles, such as Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins laying out Brandin Cooks during last year’s Super Bowl. The Eagles were not impressed with the referees’ presentation in their camp last week.

"We were trying to ask questions to get a better understanding, and yet they couldn't really give us an answer," linebacker Nigel Bradham said, via ESPN. "They couldn't give us what we were looking for.”

Bill Belichick underplayed the impact of the change when asked about it at practice Wednesday. “We always have coached fundamentals and proper techniques as we believe in them, and as we’re instructed with the rules,” he told reporters, per Pro Football Talk. “So that’s always a part of it.”

It’s not surprising that Belichck isn’t harping on rule changes in early August. The Patriots’ head coach loathes to create excuses for his players. But that doesn’t change the reality: this new rule could outlaw routine football plays, such as offensive linemen lowering their heads to block or running backs leading with their noggins. 

Last season, the Patriots were on the receiving end of three overturned touchdowns in the regular season, with at least one directly impacting the result of a game. In Week 6, Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins appeared to score a touchdown that would’ve trimmed the Patriots’ lead to three in the middle of the fourth quarter. But he lost control of the ball after hitting the pylon, and the officials determined it was a fumble and a touchback.

The most consequential reversal came in Week 15, when Steelers tight end Jesse James didn’t survive the ground when he caught the game-leading touchdown grab. The following week, Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin’s touchdown catch was wiped away.

The law of averages says the Patriots might be in for some bad luck. The new targeting rule, despite Belichick’s apparent nonchalance, gives them, and every team, many more opportunities to get screwed. 

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