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NFL will emphasize flagging all illegal use of helmet

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- While the focus will be on a proposed rule change regarding catches, the NFL's Competition Committee's presentation at the Annual League Meeting will also tackle a significant player safety issue.

The committee will introduce an emphasis on penalizing players for any illegal use of the helmet, presenting video and data as part of a message it will carry forward to officials and players heading into the 2018 season, league and team sources tell NFL.com.

There is no voting item on the meeting agenda, because the rules are already on the books. And they don't strictly cover hits on defenseless players. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 6 (i) says "using any part of a player's helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent violently or unnecessarily" is unnecessary roughness. Runners and tacklers also are prohibited from initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet. Violations are to yield 15-yard penalties, which could be called more often in light of the emphasis.

It comes on the heels of a frightening and serious injury to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who lowered his head into Cincinnati Bengals receiver Josh Malone during a Dec. 4 game. But that's just one of many types of plays the NFL wants to address, sources say. Another example is a pulling guard using his helmet to deliver a block.

The league has invested in recent years in engineering and other research that have shed light on the mechanism for injuries, including concussions.

"In our ongoing study of how to make the game better, we just seemed to see more lowering of the head," said Dallas Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, a member of the competition committee.

"Always we're looking at ways to improve and make the game safer. And when you look at the plays where the players are dropping their head, we're doing a good job of catching it after the fact with fines and things of that nature, but probably can do a better job of making the call on the field that hopefully we'll even emphasize more. Heads-up football."

Last year at these meetings, the competition committee introduced an emphasis on officials' existing power to eject for flagrant helmet hits and accelerated discipline for first offenders. The latest emphasis will cover a wider variety of plays that don't rise to the level of ejection.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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