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Illegal hits draw more scrutiny; replays, kickoffs under review

The NFL will be more aggressive in suspending players next season for illegal hits, and the league also could make changes to instant replay and kickoffs.

Ray Anderson, the league's chief disciplinarian, said Wednesday that repeat offenders or players committing flagrant illegal hits will have a much greater chance of being suspended during the 2011 season.

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No suspensions were handed down in 2010 even after the NFL's crackdown on such hits, in part because "we were operating under the principle unless you have given sufficient advance notice of what the results could be, you need to be more lenient," Anderson said.

"Frankly, now that the notice has been given, players and coaches and clubs are very aware of what the emphasis is and we won't have that hesitation," Anderson said. "Everyone will be very clearly on notice now that a suspension is very viable for us and we will exercise it ... when it comes to illegal hits to the head and neck area and to defenseless players."

The NFL increased the amount of its fines for such hits last year after a series of fouls on one October weekend. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 for one such tackle, while Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather were docked $50,000 apiece for hits to defenseless opponents that weekend.

Many more fines were implemented throughout the remainder of last season but no player was suspended, although suspensions were considered, Anderson said.

"We want to be much more clear on what can be a suspendable incident," Anderson said. "The emphasis is on head and neck hits and what a defenseless player is. And we will work hard (so) that people understand what is a repeat offender and what is a flagrant foul."

The league looks at two years' worth of plays to determined repeat offenders.

Rules defining a defenseless player will be expanded and now will include eight categories:

» A quarterback in the act of throwing;

» A receiver trying to catch a pass;

» A runner already in the grasp of tacklers and having his forward progress stopped;

» A player fielding a punt or a kickoff;

» A kicker or punter during the kick;

» A quarterback at any time after change of possession;

» A receiver who receives a blind-side block;

» A player already on the ground.

At next week's owners meetings in New Orleans, the competition committee will propose moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line, and bringing a touchback out to the 25. There would be no changes for touchbacks on any other plays, with the ball coming out to the 20.

No player other than the kicker would be allowed to line up more than 5 yards behind the ball, and the committee will suggest outlawing the wedge on kickoffs; all blocking wedges were reduced to two players in 2009.

"The injury rate on kickoffs remains a real concern for us and the players and the coaches' subcommittee," said Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee. "This is a pretty major change."

So would be making all scoring plays reviewable, another proposal the committee will bring to the owners Monday. This change would empower the replay official to order replays on touchdowns, field goals, safeties and extra points without coaches needing to challenge. It would be similar to the current system for the final two minutes of each half and for overtime, and it also would mirror what colleges do on scoring plays for entire games.

Eliminating a third coach's challenge if he is successful on the first two also will be proposed; McKay said the third challenge rarely was used.

There will be no "Calvin Johnson rule" proposal on what is a catch. Johnson seemingly made a touchdown reception late in the Lions' season opener last September, but it was ruled incomplete because the ball, still in his hand, touched the ground as he raced off to celebrate. McKay's committee is recommending only a further clarification of the rules on such receptions.

"We confirmed a rule that has been there for more than 70 years which basically says there are three elements to a catch," McKay said. "Secure the ball in your hands; maintain control when have you two feet down or any body part other than the hands (are down); and we will write it into the rules that you must control the ball long enough after 'A' and 'B' (to) enable you to perform any act common to the game. That doesn't mean you have to perform the act, but must have the ability to.

"Would Calvin Johnson's be a catch under 2011 rules? Our answer would be no."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league plans to release the regular-season schedule in mid-April, despite the current work stoppage.

"A specific date is not set," Aiello said. "We plan to do what we normally do."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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