Coach asks NFL about QB hit rules

Updated: September 5, 2013, 8:04 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh wants to ensure that mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn't blatantly targeted Sunday by the Green Bay Packers, so he has gone to the NFL for clarity about when Kaepernick is supposed to be safe before he's declared a runner.

Kaepernick ran the read-option to near perfection on a big stage against Green Bay in the NFC divisional round in January. By league rule, a quarterback in that scheme isn't as protected as his peers once he leaves the pocket and it's clear he's running.

"You're hearing a lot of tough talk right now. You're hearing some intimidating type of talk, the same thing we were hearing a couple years ago," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "It sounds a lot like targeting a specific player. You definitely start to wonder.

"A man will usually tell you his bad intentions if you just listen. You know what's being said publicly, not what's being said privately. You hope that their intent isn't going to be anything that's not within the rules."

In the NFL's weekly rules video that was sent to reporters on Thursday, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino showed several read-option plays and spelled out when a quarterback who is in the act of running the read-option can be hit.

"The quarterback can be hit like a runner until he's clearly out of the play," Blandino said in the video.

Blandino noted that if a quarterback is carrying out an option fake, normal unnecessary roughness rules apply. But once the quarterback hands the ball off on an option play, he is protected and cannot be unnecessarily contacted if he is backing up, fading backward or standing still.

On Tuesday, Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews told ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" that perhaps the best way to slow read-option quarterbacks like Kaepernick is to hit them.

"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. "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."

Matthews on Thursday wouldn't elaborate on what he said on ESPN Radio but said "we'll find out" when asked if he thinks there's a gray area in the rules about hitting read-option quarterbacks.

"The natural progression of the game with quarterbacks who continue the play-fake, we'll see. But we feel good about our scheme and what we're going to try to accomplish up there," he said.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy was asked Thursday if it's OK to hit the quarterback on a read-option play when he's carrying out a fake.

"The reality is, the quarterback is part of the option," McCarthy said. "There's three options obviously: the quarterback, the dive and the pitch. The ability to go tackle that player is obviously within the rules."

Kaepernick ran right past the Packers in last season's playoff meeting, and through them too, his breakout game in a breakthrough season coming in his first postseason start. Less than two months after Harbaugh kept him in the lineup even though Alex Smith had returned from a concussion, Kaepernick carried the 49ers to a 45-31 victory by running for two touchdowns and throwing for two more.

He set a playoff record for quarterbacks in the process with 181 rushing yards in a win that sent San Francisco to its second straight NFC title game.

Kaepernick said he doesn't concern himself with a defense's motivations.

"I'm not worried about that," he said. "It's football. You're going to get hit."

Matthews insisted the Packers will be better prepared come Sunday's season opener at Candlestick Park, when they try again to slow -- or stop -- Kaepernick.

"We had an entire offseason to focus on last year's loss, having time to kind of figure out a way to defend that," Matthews said. "We obviously like to think we're better prepared to defend that type of offense and what he brings to the table."

Harbaugh said he plans to speak to the officials before the game about what he calls a "gray area" in the rules. He doesn't expect to hear back from the league before kickoff.

"Those are the conversations right now," Harbaugh said. "I haven't gotten the final clarification on what it's going to be."

San Francisco had 579 total yards -- 323 on the ground -- in the playoff win and scored the third-most points in the franchise's storied playoff history.

Information from ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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