I spent some time this summer in the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room, and for a moment I wasn't sure what sport I was covering. A conversation with defensive tackle Domata Peko kept circling back to a foreign term: the strike zone.
"We do tackling drills every day," Peko said. "But now we have our little target areas on the dummies. These days, they tell you over and over: Above the knee and below the neck."
I'm sure Major League Baseball pitchers would love a strike zone so large, but in football, it represents a major truncation and a fundamental departure from traditional technique. The NFL's continuing crackdown on hits to the head, once considered an emphasis that would fade like many others, has forced noticeable changes in the way teams prepare for the season. It has taken a few years, but its germination throughout training camps suggests the game is slowly being rewired to benefit head safety.
"Drilling has changed in maybe the last three or four years," Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "When you talked to defensive players, you always talked about putting a target on the quarterback. Now you talk to them about where that target is and where you hit him. To me, it's noticeable when you watch games. They're not leading with the helmet as much. You get a penalty if you do, and we don't want that."
Indeed, I wouldn't assume these efforts represent pure altruism. No one wants to cause injuries, but just as important if not more, no one wants to lose games or money.
Working in concert with the league office, officials have provided suitable motivation for change.
It's easy to issue an edict that requires players to avoid the head when tackling, in addition to the lower leg for quarterbacks in the pocket. It's more difficult, and time consuming, to teach them to do it naturally. There are no quick answers, and coaches have responded in a familiar manner: Drills that are intended to create new habits over time.
You might have seen this 21-minute video produced by the Seattle Seahawks, documenting the way they have taught tackling over the past four years. It's a fascinating and completely logical video, all in one, instructing players to be "shoulder tacklers" modeled after rugby players. It explains six teaching points, including the "strike zone," and can be practiced with or without pads.
According to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the goal is to "maintain physical integrity of the game while developing safer tackling techniques." To varying degrees, these adjustments are underway in most NFL training camps.
Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Cory Redding, who is entering his 12th NFL season, has found himself in a new world. He nods his head when asked if he's now drilling the strike zone and said it's only the start.
"For us," he said, "it's below the chin and above the waist. But we're also working on putting our heads 'across the bow.' Get it out of the way. No hitting below the knees. When you get to the quarterback, come to balance before you hit him. All of that stuff."
It remains a foreign concept to many NFL players who are accustomed to a more unfettered release of aggression. In Cincinnati, Peko said the game has changed dramatically for defensive linemen after they beat their block.
"In prior days," he said, "you could take down the quarterback by his ankle, knee or whatever. You could go high or low. Now you have to be on-point with your target area."
In an ideal world, a generation of drilling will trickle down to lower levels of the game and make shoulder tackling -- along with its related techniques -- a natural technique.
"What I was always taught, I've got to rewire myself," Redding said. "It's not natural right now. I'm taught to go 1,000 miles an hour. I hit to and through the ground. Sometimes I can't control how fast I get to a guy. … But you've got to play the way the referees make the rules. That's what the game has evolved to."
It's difficult to take a quantitative measure of the current impact of this new approach. Penalties for hits to the head are classified broadly under personal fouls, unnecessary roughness or roughing the quarterback. But anecdotally, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said, a change is "significantly" noticeable when watching game film and added, "Players are starting to adapt to that, which I think is a great thing."
I realize it's easy to be cynical and conspiratorial on this issue. The NFL has a multihinged task here: It's just as important to tell the world about the work to make the game safer as it is to actually make it safer. The league needs parents of potential youth football players and insurance companies alike to believe in its course.
But based on the visual I got this summer, a genuine effort is underway. Whether the motivation is safety or self-sustenance or winning is irrelevant. The pace is slow to some, and the goal is maddening to others, but it's time to get used to it. The strike zone, and its many corollaries, is here to stay.