Legal hits on defenseless players revisited

August, 11, 2012
8/11/12
2:45
PM ET
NFL teams have long sought hard-hitting safeties to deter receivers from making catches over the middle of the field.

Wilson
Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals has been one such safety for more than a decade.

The rules have changed, however, and players such as Wilson walk a finer line when determining how to serve as a deterrent without inviting penalties and fines.

The hit Wilson delivered Friday night against Kansas City Chiefs receiver Terrance Copper provides another test case. At first glance, Wilson did what every team has wanted its safeties to do for decades. He held the opposing team accountable for lofting a high pass over the middle. Copper leaped for the ball, his body suspended in a jumping-jack position as gravity pulled him back toward the ground, where Wilson was waiting.

Copper never had a chance to defend himself from contact. In a split second, the ball sailed past him by about five yards and Wilson lowered his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame into a crouching position. As Copper landed, Wilson's left shoulder and upper arm struck him in the torso area near the elbow. The impact catapulted Copper into the air and onto his back.

Replacement officials working the game did not penalize Wilson. Copper knelt for a few seconds after the play before going down onto his hands and knees, where he remained for another 70 seconds or so. Three members of the Chiefs' training/medical staff tended to him during that time. Copper eventually walked off the field.

Will the NFL fine Wilson? A few things to consider:
  • Copper was a defenseless player;
  • Rules allow defenders to hit defenseless players as long as the defenders do not initiate contact with their helmets, and as long as defenders do not strike the defenseless players in the head or neck area;
  • Wilson did not use his helmet to deliver the blow;
  • Wilson did not strike Copper in the head or neck area.

By these measures, the hit on Copper was a legal one. The only uncertainty, in my view, involves the timing. The pass from Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn was high and slightly behind Copper. The ball had gone past Copper when Wilson delivered the hit.

As the rulebook states, "It is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture."

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