By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to rule changes over the years brought on by their aggressive, physical style of play, and the NFL came up with one again this year.
There was the head-slap rule to stop the Steel Curtain’s defensive line from beating up their opposing offensive linemen on their way to sacking the quarterback, and then there was the 5-yard chuck rule instituted because monstrous cornerback Mel Blount would tie up a wideout at the line and he had no chance to get into his pattern.
Now, there’s the Hines Ward Rule, aptly named for Steelers wideout Hines Ward, who can change a game equally as well with his run-blocking ability as he does as a pass-catcher.
And the main play that precipitated the rule came against the Cincinnati Bengals and rookie linebacker Keith Rivers.
“There’s really no intent now in this new rule,” Referee Gene Steratore, in his seventh NFL season, said. “It’s black and white, and the parameters we have to work with primarily are that we’re trying to protect the head and neck area. Also, it’s just as important for the guy delivering the hit, because he can put himself in danger by using his helmet.
“And it’s not just your head. You can’t lead with your forearm or shoulder, either, to hit a guy in the head. That same kind of hit can be delivered lateral or upfield, but not when the guy is coming back toward the line of scrimmage. And we want to see that block delivered into the torso and not the neck or head.”
The new rule, among seven approved by the NFL for this season to focus on player safety, makes illegal a blindside block if it comes from the blocker’s helmet, forearm or shoulder and lands to the head or neck area of the defender.
Ward’s crushing block, legal last season and still legal if delivered a little lower on Rivers’ body, broke his jaw.
“It’s kind of funny because week in and week out, all we see are highlights of somebody getting blown up by a defensive player,” Ward said. “In my case, it’s shunned or doesn’t look good or makes me a dirty player. I don’t do anything different from what they do to offensive players.
“(But) it’s a big honor for my style of play to have a big impact. At the same time, I’m not going to change my game based off a rule, because coach (Mike) Tomlin said just keep continuing playing the way you are. I’m going to continue being the fierce wideout going out there, blocking guys and making plays.”
Steelers safety Ryan Clark had two huge hits that might have led to this last rule change.
Clark drilled New England wide receiver Wes Welker and Baltimore running back Willis McGahee last season.
There were no fines levied, but many believed the heavy shots were illegal. The new rule states:
• Any hits to a “defenseless” receiver cannot be made by a defender’s helmet, forearm or shoulder to the head.
“I’m not going to try to hit a guy in the head,” Clark said. “But if he gets to the ball first, I have to try to separate him from it. So, I’m going to hit him. I don’t want to injury a guy, either. And neither does Hines, but we play aggressively. And I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep doing that.”
Other rule changes stated that:
• Teams kicking off must have four players on each side of the kicker with three lined up outside each inbounds line. The rule was passed to prevent “bunching” on onside kicks.
• No more than two players on the kickoff receiving drill can form a wedge to block for the runner. So, no more lining up side-by-side.
• The game clock will start on the ready signal after all fumbles and backward passes that go out of bounds.
• The automatic re-kick is eliminated after an illegal onside kick.
• And reviewable plays are expanded to include quarterback passes and fumbles when the ruling on the field is an incomplete pass and when loose balls are ruled to have hit the sideline.