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The NFL's New Helmet-Lowering Rule, Explained

A new NFL rule says that players cannot lower their heads to initiate and make contact with opponents.

In late March, the NFL instituted a new rule stating that players cannot lower their heads to initiate and make contact with opponents, regardless of the situation.

As part of the new rule, which is considered unneccessary roughness, players will receive a 15-yard penalty and could possibly be ejected. The previous rule limited the penalty to contact to the crown of the helmet.

The new rule officially reads, "Lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet is a foul." It is intended to remove unnecessary use of the helmet. The hits don't have to come to the head or neck but anywhere on the body. Players cannot use their helmets to "butt, spear or ram an opponent."

Plays subject to ejection include when a player has an "unobstructed path" to his opponent or "contact was clearly avoidable," but the player chose to lower his head and use his helmet.

Ejections will be made on the field but will also be reviewed in the NFL's officiating command center by Al Riveron, the league's senior vice president of officiating, and his colleagues. 

Riveron told the Los Angeles Times in May that he will review the play as soon as he hears a player has been ejected from a game. He will not consult with any referees or replay officials during the process. Even if he overturns the ejection, the 15-yard penalty will still stand.

During the NFL preseason, coaches and players spoke out against the rule changes. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer believes that the change will ultimately result in players losing roster spots.

"It’s going to cost some people some jobs,” Zimmersaid, according to The Athletic. “Playoffs, jobs, the whole bit, I'm guessing.”

During the Vikings' Week 2 preseason game against the Jaguars, two of Jacksonville's plays drew 15–yard penalties: one for roughing the passer and another for lowering the helmet. Zimmer said that he contacted the league office on a penalty called on Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye to get more clarification on the rule.

49ers cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted about his frustration over the rule during the preseason. 

The NFL's new rule is stronger than the NCAA's targeting rule, which penalizes players for targeting the head or neck of defenseless opponents. Contact can be made with the helmet, forearm, fist, hand, elbow or shoulder.

Calls for a targeting rule in the NFL came after Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury in December. While the hit that injured Shazier was not a head-on collision, it would fall under the new rule.