If the NFL wanted to get players' attention with big-time fines and suspensions for helmet-to-helmet hits, consider it done in the Bengals locker room.
A day after Steelers linebacker James Harrison got hit with a $75,000 fine and Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson each absorbed a $50,000 fee, the Bengals defenders mulled the fallout before Wednesday's practice.
"Take your pick," said safety Chris Crocker. "You change the way you play or you're going to lose a lot of money. I'd rather keep the money in my pocket ... it's a huge difference. That's the point of emphasis. They're going to make the fines higher and higher and then the guys will start being more aware."
The other starting safety this week in Atlanta, Chinedum Ndukwe, is also going to protect his wallet.
"We just have to play smarter," Ndukwe said. "We have no choice but to play smarter and do the best we can. At the end of the day you're trying to keep your job and the money in your pocket. Just try to lower the target area. It's one of those things; try to do it in practice. Get lower in practice and get lower in a game. You can't think about it in a game.
"It has to (impact players). When you think about taking money away from guys, that's affecting people's families and livelihoods."
The Bengals already feel like the refs have been enforcing it in their games. At least in Cleveland 17 days ago when Ndukwe was given a 15-yard penalty for hitting Browns tight end Ben Watson in the air at the end of a 21-yard catch. It turned out to be a devastating flag, since it came with less than 20 seconds left in the half and led to the Browns' go-ahead field goal in a game the Bengals never got the lead back.
Then Ndukwe was informed by the league two days later that it was the wrong call and that he didn't hit Watson with his helmet.
"The thing that sucks is it's not only the fines, but the penalties," Crocker said. "The penalty can lose you the game. We had an instance in Cleveland where we had a flag thrown for defenseless hits and it can change the outcome of the game."
Cornerback Adam Jones, all 180 pounds of him, says he won't have to change his game. But he says the safeties and linebackers will have to.
"You have to really change the way you play football. That's the way the rules are and we're going to have to adjust," Crocker said. "I don't think it's fair because I think some of the defenseless hits were some that guys were just playing football. You just can't control yourself sometimes, running at high speed and you can't slow yourself. It's unfortunate, that's how the NFL wants it and we have to change."
Jones and Ndukwe think there are now going to be more neck and shoulder injuries and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer thinks there are going to be more knee injuries. Zimmer says the problem is that when defenders line up a legal hit, the receivers make themselves smaller and the only thing they can hit is the head.
"Guys aren't going to mess with the chest anymore. They're going to start going with the knees," Zimmer said.
The coaches responded to the NFL directive by showing the club film Wednesday, but head coach Marvin Lewis, a member of the NFL competition committee, insisted that the rule hasn't changed since the league made it a point of emphasis at the league meeting in March. While Crocker and Ndukwe are concerned that they now have to change their style, secondary coach Kevin Coyle said the coaches have been teaching the same things since the spring.
"We've been talking to the players about lowering their target area on all potentially dangerous hits," Coyle said after Wednesday's practice. "Whenever they're in a situation where a guy is laid out or is considered to be a defenseless receiver going up for the ball, we talk about making sure that no contact is made above the numbers. Anything above the numbers hit with a forearm, helmet or shoulder is going to be called, so lowering the target area is the biggest point of emphasis."
Even though the Bengals got word that the refs fouled up the Ndukwe play in Cleveland, Coyle took the opportunity for a teaching moment. That next week he had the DBs throw the tackling bags up in the air to simulate the defenseless receivers, and this is where he agrees. The players have to reign in the instincts they've developed their entire lives and be more aware of where they're making contact.
But Coyle also believes that it doesn't take away from the basics and the need to perfect tackling.
"I think one of the things we emphasized to our guys was that you run through guys with your shoulders but you wrap your arms," Coyle said. "All of those incidents that you saw over the weekend, there are no arm tackles or the art of tackling that we once knew where you hit through with shoulders, you run your legs and you grab and wrap with your arms.
"There is so much collision hitting in the NFL, just throwing shoulders and launching the body into a receiver. That's not a way of good tackling. You miss tackles doing that. You bounce off of guys doing that. We want to secure the tackle and see guys on the ground."
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco has made a career of avoiding kill shots. He says it only happened once to him, in 2006 when Browns safety Brian Russell gave him a shot to his chin and he got his only concussion.
Some felt he never went over the middle the same way again, but he disagrees.
"The chances of him catching me or anyone else catching me in that same spot are not likely at all," The Ocho said. "If you pay attention to all the hits, people are getting hit when they're not looking. It's just being aware of your surroundings. Most of the hits that have taken place, the receivers are running through zones. You don't run through zones. I don't know man, it happens."
But he agrees with everyone so concerned about concussions, something has to be done.
"In a sense it is (an overreaction), but you have to remember the numbers are up for people getting concussions, people getting hurt," Ochocinco said. "And the concussion situation is really serious because it can affect us as players long-term, so they'll nip it in the bud. This should be no different than when they changed the rule on the quarterback. Everybody adjusted to it well, and everybody will adjust to this well also."