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NFL players adjust to crackdown on illegal hits

Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith had Steelers receiver Hines Ward lined up, ready to deliver the big hit. Instead of going high, he went for Ward's legs. No fine or penalty for that one.

It was the sort of play that, most Sundays, would have gone unnoticed, especially because Ward returned to the field a play later after getting his knees checked out.

This Sunday was different, though, because it marked the first set of games since the NFL said it would be cracking down on illegal hits, handing out fines and threatening suspensions. Actually, Ward's brief absence, and the almost total lack of big shots in the afternoon's other NFL games, made it look a lot like any given Sunday, even if it's still too early to tell for sure how things are -- or aren't -- going to change over time.

"It's football," Ward said. "If you play this game worried about getting hurt, you will get hurt. It's a fearless game, it's a physical game, so the rule is the rule. You can't play this game scared. If you do, you won't last long."

With all of the day's 13 games complete, there were no cringe-inducing hits to replay on the highlight shows -- nothing the likes of what James Harrison, Brandon Meriweather and Dunta Robinson delivered last weekend in a spate of vicious plays that brought about hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, along with repeated reminders that the league would be watching more closely from now on.

By sending out its various warnings -- a memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell, a video showing can- and can't-dos, lists sent to coaches letting them know which players have multiple unnecessary roughness penalties -- the NFL is looking for more certainty in a sport that has many shades of gray.

One bit of black and white: No players were penalized for illegal hits to the head over the 13 games, giving the league every reason to believe its message got through.

"I've seen a change in players' behavior in one week," NFL officiating chief Carl Johnson was quoted as telling Peter King on NBC's "Football Night in America."

Ward's Steelers teammate, Harrison, played along, returning to the field after a tumultuous week in which he received a $75,000 fine from the NFL and briefly threatened to retire. He called it business as usual -- well, except for one particular play, when he saw Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown coming across the middle.

"I had a chance to put my head in there, and it looked like he was crouching down," Harrison said. "I didn't want to get a helmet-to-helmet (hit). I didn't put my face in there, and he went down, and luckily he didn't scamper for another 10 or 15 yards."

Harrison wasn't the only player who said he occasionally had the NFL's tougher stance on his mind.

"For sure," Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said. "I definitely think you'll think about it; $75,000 is crazy."

In the Cleveland Browns' victory over Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita thought he saw instances of defenders going low when they might have had clean shots higher up.

"Now you've got guys whose ankles are going to be taken out and knees are going to get blown up," Fujita said, "so it's kind of a Catch 22 if you ask me."

Baltimore's notoriously hard-hitting defense gave up a season-high 34 points before pulling out an overtime victory over winless Buffalo, and some Ravens were thinking about the rules. Players in both defensive backfields appeared to give up chances for big hits on receivers, going after the ball instead.

"We touched on that at halftime. We harped on it. The coaches talked about it," safety Ed Reed said. "We talked about it, with the fines and all that coming out. But at the end of the day, you've got to play football, and you've got to be smart playing it."

Meriweather played smarter. Early in New England's game against the San Diego Chargers, he had a chance to tee up San Diego receiver Patrick Crayton, but went after him with his shoulder. Crayton popped up after the 11-year gain and signaled first down.

In Seattle, Cardinals defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had a free shot at Brandon Stokley but went shoulder-to-chest to knock him down.

In New Orleans, Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins made a run at Browns fullback Lawrence Vickers but went low.

Not everyone was perfect, though.

Philadelphia linebacker Ernie Sims lowered his head and appeared to use his helmet to knock Tennessee running back Chris Johnson out of bounds, and Titans fans started booing after watching the replay of the unpenalized play on the scoreboard.

Sims said he saw Johnson fighting for extra yards and knew he needed to make a play. Neither player was concerned about a possible fine.

"If the ref calls it, then he does," Johnson said. "I'm not really worried about it."

As if to illustrate the point that head injuries can't simply be willed out of a violent sport, there were some more Sunday.

Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Max Hall left the Cardinals game at Seattle in the third quarter after he received what the team announced was a "blow to the head" on Chris Clemons' blindside sack.

In Atlanta, Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud collided helmet-to-helmet with Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson, and DeCoud needed help getting off the field after that one. No penalty was called, and Falcons coach Mike Smith said DeCoud was not allowed back in the game.

In the stands, there were signs that fans had taken notice of the issue after being bombarded by news about the hard hits and the fines.

There was a sign at Lambeau Field before Sunday night's Vikings-Packers game that read, "Stop the concussions we want the players to remember us."

Not surprisingly, players' opinions about whether things had changed were divided -- sometimes even in the same locker room.

"It was in the back of my mind on a couple of plays," said Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who had two sacks against the Bengals. "I had a shot and held off."

But across the way, linebacker Mike Peterson said the Falcons made a point of not holding back.

"The thing we've been saying in our locker room (is): We're going to let everybody else tone it down, and we're going to turn it up," Peterson said.

Still, the league is making it plain where it stands: Players need to put the brakes on.

"On some plays where I had a clear shot at the quarterback, I kind of slowed down and made sure I hit him in the right spot," Dolphins defensive end Tony McDaniels said. "I definitely think it slows us down. When you think about a $75,000 fine or a $50,000 fine, for some guys, that's four or five game checks."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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