QB hits open to interpretation?

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
9:11
PM ET
Clay Matthews and Jim Harbaugh apparently have different interpretations of what exactly defenders can do to a read-option quarterback.

On Tuesday, the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker told ESPN Radio’s "Mike & Mike" that perhaps the best way to slow down read-option quarterbacks such as San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick is to hit him.

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews, Colin Kaepernick
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportClay Matthews said the Packers' plan Sunday is to make quarterback Colin Kaepernick "uncomfortable" early and force the 49ers into more of a traditional pocket-style offense.
“One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback,” Matthews said on "Mike & Mike." “So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they’re too important to their offense. If that means they pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that’s exactly what we’re going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable.”

Apparently not liking the sound of that, Harbaugh, the 49ers' coach, on Wednesday made the case for additional protection for his quarterback.

ESPN.com colleague Bill Williamson, who covers the 49ers, sent along the following quote from Harbaugh’s session with reporters:

“Before he’s declared to being a runner, he should be afforded the protection that all quarterbacks are afforded, until he declares and gets out of the pocket and starts running with the ball or running an option or carrying out a bootleg and attempting to run or pass when he's outside of the pocket,” Harbaugh said. “But while he’s in the pocket, I believe he’s a quarterback until he declares that he's a runner.”

Harbaugh said he planned to discuss the matter with the officials before Sunday’s game at Candlestick Park.

Matthews and the rest of the Packers' defenders spent considerable time this offseason working on a plan for the read-option after Kaepernick lit them up for 579 yards of total offense in the 49ers' playoff win in January. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers gained 176 yards on 16 read-option plays in their 45-31 NFC divisional game victory. Before that, the Packers had seen only eight option rushes all season.

The NFL made no rule changes pertaining to read-option quarterbacks this offseason. That means when a quarterback acts as a ball carrier, he becomes just like a running back or receiver and can be hit as long as the hit is delivered in a legal fashion.

However, the rules prohibit a defender from hitting the quarterback after he no longer possesses the ball as long as he is at a standstill or moving away from the play. But in the read-option, it’s not always clear to a defensive player when the quarterback gets rid of the football on an option run.

Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, recently offered some clarity in a story published last month in the Los Angeles Times, but it’s far from a cut-and-dried situation.

“The key is the posture of the quarterback,” Blandino said. “You can’t take a free shot at him. But what we’re seeing in some instances is the quarterback hands off and then carries out the fake like he has the ball, and he's presenting a running posture.

“In that instance, he’s trying to deceive the defense, trying to draw the defense to him, and he doesn’t have special protection in that situation. He can be hit until enough time has passed where he’s clearly out of the play.”

For his part, Kaepernick didn’t seem interested in discussing how many hits he might take.

“I wear a helmet and shoulder pads like everyone else,” Kaepernick said during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. “It’s for a reason.”

Rob Demovsky

ESPN Green Bay Packers reporter

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