By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA — The San Francisco 49ers became well-acquainted with the NFL’s new helmet-lowering rule during their 16-13 loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday. On two separate occasions, San Francisco players were flagged for violating the rule, and now the team is working to understand what is a legal tackle versus what is not.
“It’s an idiotic rule,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said on Wednesday.
The NFL’s newest safety policy, which has been called frequently this preseason, prohibits any player from using their head to initiate contact with any part of another player’s body.
“You struggle with it. What do you tell a guy?” said defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “We’re trying to find a balance of what exactly do we tell a defensive player when he’s in a great football position.”
One of the plays in question involved 49ers defensive lineman Jeremiah Attaochu, who was flagged for using the crown of his helmet to bull-rush Texans offensive tackle Chad Slade. This was the team’s second violation following Raheem Mostert’s “illegal” tackle on a Houston punt return.
According to Attaochu, though, he hasn’t been fined yet for the penalty, which begs the question as to whether or not it’s clear what the league is expecting from it’s players.
“I think that’s the gray area,” said Attaochu. “Like, as a player, you don’t know exactly how to go after it because part of your game is using power to rush the quarterback. I think there’s a lot you have to consider as a player.”
While players themselves aren’t sure what they can and can’t do from a contact perspective, they are now being forced to temper their aggression and free-flowing form of play. In addition, some players on the 49ers roster believe that the rule is being enforced unjustly.
San Francisco has had three players penalized for helmet rule throughout two preseason games while tackling on special teams or defense, but not a single flag has been thrown against an offensive player.
“It’s one of those rules that they’re obviously only calling on the defense,” said Sherman, who will play in his first preseason game this Saturday after a hamstring strain kept him out of San Francisco’s first two exhibitions. “I saw one with A.J. Bouya and the running back literally plowed his head into his chest and and then they somehow called the penalty on A.J. Bouya and he got ran over.
“It’s like ‘Oh, so initiating contact with the crown of the helmet, which the running back did, only applies when you’re the defensive player.’ It makes sense.”
Attaochu echoed Sherman’s point of view and said the reason for the lopsided enforcement of the rule is because the NFL is “shifting towards an offensive-favored league.”
Whether or not referees are consciously choosing to only enforce the rule against defensive players, the task of adhering to the new policy still falls to the 49ers coaching staff.
New techniques and philosophies are now being taught to players in hopes that by doing so, the risk of being called for the costly penalty will be mitigated.
San Francisco has made a conscious effort to help their players adjust to the game’s new landscape, and the staff thinks that it is possible to effectively tackle without using the head.
“Everything with us, when we talk about being violent and all that, everything is within the rules,” said Saleh. “Using your hand, violent with your feet, violent with your pad level; violence isn’t just throwing your helmet in there.
“You can play violently within the rules of the game. We know what we teach, we have great conviction in what we teach and one thing we don’t teach is using out helmet.”
However the helmet rule shakes out throughout the regular season, it’s clear that there is currently a lot of confusion as to how it should be enforced and, and how to comply with it. According to Sherman, though, this should come as no surprises to anyone considering the league’s history of tripping over their own feet.
“Name something that’s less NFL than this,’ said the four-time All-Pro corner. “That’s what the NFL is known for, that’s what our league is known for: Doing something that takes attention away from the game. The game has actually been played great but the ‘catch rule,’ this helmet thing, it’s what we do.”