The Ed Reed suspension drew a strong reaction from defensive players all over the NFL this week, but don't get this mixed up. The sanctions against the Baltimore Ravens All-Pro safety simply served as the tipping point for a group of guys who have grown to feel like second-class citizens in a first-class league.
Two days after Reed's suspension was levied, and a day after it was reduced to a $50,000 fine on appeal, I was on the phone with 10-year veteran Bradie James, now with the Houston Texans. The linebacker used a question about the absence of Brian Cushing as a launching point for getting into a deeper topic.
"When Cushing got hurt -- and I just wanna put this out there -- we got a chance to see the discrepancy in fines," James said, steering the conversation in another direction. "That was a season-ending injury, and (New York Jets guard Matt) Slauson got $10,000. Meanwhile, (Texans linebacker Tim) Dobbins gets $30,000 for hitting a quarterback. That's a discrepancy in the fine system, offense vs. defense. Pretty simple."
Pro football players understand that their time is limited, and that teams are unapologetic about moving on from guys who have seen a brutal game take a toll on their body.
It's not hard to understand why the protection of their careers is a sensitive subject with players. And as James said, the average defensive player's view is likewise easy to comprehend. Rules are in place to mitigate the physical on-field risk for offensive skill players, and quarterbacks in particular; the feeling is that there isn't equity in that area for the folks on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
"We do take offense to it," San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner, a seven-year vet, told me over the phone on Wednesday. "But that's the nature of the business. We always get the short end of the stick. The rules they put in are always designed to help out the offense."
The league, as you might imagine, disagrees with that assertion.
NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson recently studied the numbers. He said he found that the split between fines for illegal shots by offensive players and those by defensive guys is "much more balanced than you might think." And he was resolute in emphasizing that there isn't a bias.
"We have constantly made sure to protect all players, and we've expanded some of the rules in response to what defensive coaches and players have told us," Anderson said. "We added protection on illegal crack-back blocks, the plays when the H-backs and receivers come back to the interior of the line; those defensive guys are protected as defenseless players."
Anderson added that, in light of Cushing's injury, "There's no question the competition committee is going to take a look at all the low blocks we've seen, including chop blocks, in the offseason. So our response would be that we've taken recent action, responded to some concerns and hope to continue to take significant steps to protect all players."
You'd have trouble finding many defensive players who believe the league has done enough.
Whitner raised the point that some blocks that are outlawed on kickoffs and punts are legal for offensive players. It's clear that the problems, in these guys' minds, can't be boiled down to a couple of categories.
"I'm not gonna beat around the bush," Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas said. "There's no possible way to beat around the bush. They definitely don't protect us at all. I know they can do a better job, as far as cut blocks, high/lows. I don't understand why a runner can put his hands on your facemask, but as soon as you go to put your hands on his facemask, it's a penalty. I don't understand it. But I hope in the near future, the league will do a better job of actually looking at plays and seeing why they're fining guys."
One reason that Anderson provided for the disparity -- and he didn't dispute that defensive players have been disciplined significantly more than their offensive counterparts -- is the league's effort to get concussions under control. This part, to Anderson, is simple. The nature of the game being what it is, there are going to be more high hits from defensive players than offensive players. So the initiative to curb head shots is going to skew the numbers against the defensive players.
"If you're up around the head and neck area, it's gonna be treated more severely, because of the concern with concussions and the life-altering potential there," said Anderson. "Folks will disagree with it, but we've made the determination that hits in the head and neck area, particularly if they're flagrant, are ones we're going to come down harder on. That's the candid truth. But that doesn't mean hits like the one on Cushing won't get attention. You'll probably see significant upgrades on the fines on those going forward."
For the time being, as Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril put it, defensive players feel like "we have to protect ourselves." And no matter how Anderson or the league frame things, the players believe the NFL has its motive, and they think it's centered on the fact that, in Whitner's words, "Scoring points is at a premium -- it sells tickets, it gets ratings -- and playing good defense and stopping teams doesn't do that."
The hope from those guys is that Anderson delivers on his promise, and that change is on the way.
"It's crazy," Delmas said. "We're not just talking about fines, about money; we're talking about guys' careers. Dude cut-blocked Cushing from the back without him looking; (Cushing's) out for the whole season, but (Slauson's) fined $10,000. It's not about money. Crazy. It's about protecting guys."
Players on the spot
Minnesota Vikings DE Jared Allen: Doesn't matter if it's Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler or backup Jason Campbell that Allen is getting after on Sunday; this is the type of game that Allen should have a chance to impact. He said earlier in the week that the first priority is stopping the run, but the All-Pro's ability to abuse Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb on passing downs has to be a huge concern for Chicago. That matchup will be key to the Vikings' attempt to reach seven wins.
Indianapolis Colts ILB Pat Angerer: Despite last week's blowout loss to the New England Patriots, Indianapolis remains in the thick of the playoff hunt in the watered-down AFC. And for a young team that's been through a lot, this week's matchup is a big one. The Buffalo Bills have played well in their last two games and will be coming off 10 days of rest. The biggest issue for the Colts will be dealing with running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, which puts Angerer in the crosshairs.
Green Bay Packers K Mason Crosby: First time I've shined the light on a kicker here, but it's that time of year, when the stretch run looms and contenders with guys struggling at the position have to consider making a change. And make no mistake: Crosby is struggling, having hit just six of his last 13 field-goal attempts. Making a big kick on Sunday night against the New York Giants could buy Crosby a reprieve -- if he misses one, he could get a ticket out of town.
Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan: It's a credit to Atlanta that the Falcons have been able to win on Ryan's two bad days this season (against the Oakland Raiders in October and the Arizona Cardinals last week). Ryan bounced back after the Raiders game with a huge performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. To keep the NFC South race from opening back up, Ryan will need to do it again, this time against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that will make Ryan beat it (the unit ranks No. 1 against the run).
Coaches in the spotlight
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh: I applaud the guts Harbaugh is showing by going with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I, like everyone else, was also impressed with what I saw on Monday night. But don't confuse what's happening here. This is a risk, asking a young, inexperienced player to lead a Super Bowl contender's huddle starting in mid-November. Harbaugh's gotten a lot right in his two seasons. So this will be fascinating.
Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike Miller: The Cardinals rank 31st in the NFL in total offense and 30th in scoring offense, a level of production that hasn't been unfamiliar since Kurt Warner and former coordinator Todd Haley left. The organization really likes rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley, so now he gets his shot to effect change. And it's high time that some quarterback -- any quarterback -- shows progress under Miller and his staff.
Something to spot on Monday night
Job security. Or lack thereof. Normally, I focus on the Thursday game here, but because of the holiday week, we're looking ahead to the Rubbernecker's Special in Philly. Both Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid and Carolina Panthers head man Ron Rivera (Reid's former linebackers coach) are under fire, and the heat will be turned up on the loser of this nationally televised affair. The key for both men is to find a way to show promise around their respective young quarterbacks.
The Denver Broncos' run defense: Of late, Denver's defense has gotten better as quickly as the offense, improving to fifth in the NFL in total D and sixth against the run. But when the Broncos struggled earlier in the year, it was because guys like New England Patriots RB Stevan Ridley and Houston Texans RB Arian Foster helped their offenses control the game. The Kansas City Chiefs aren't exactly a top-level test for the Broncos, but Jamaal Charles and Co. could provide a measuring stick on the ground.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.