GREEN BAY - The NFL has made a slew of rule changes for the 2018 season and Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy says his football team will be ready to adjust to each one of them.
The league and its competition committee took several steps this offseason toward improving player safety, with three particular areas of emphasis having a direct connection to the Packers – use of the helmet, taking quarterbacks to the ground and a new catch rule.
Green Bay's players and coaches spent the offseason reviewing and preparing for the upcoming changes. The defensive coaches have placed a heavy emphasis on proper tackling form to adjust to the new rules surrounding use of the helmet.
Whatever lingering questions they may have can be answered this week with NFL referee Alex Kemp and his crew officiating practice on Thursday and Friday, and also working Saturday's Family Night practice at Lambeau Field.
"I think clearly you have to remember what we're trying to accomplish here," said McCarthy Thursday morning. "The number of egregious hits in the league last year, the goal is clearly to get those out of the game. The helmet is not a weapon. So it's really, from my viewpoint, the emphasizing the proper tackling techniques and this and that. Once again, I know history will tell you in my time going back through all the rule changes – if we can get it early enough as coaches and get it a part of our training, we'll achieve the goal."
In addition to a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness, players can now be ejected for lowering their helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating contact with the helmet, delivering a blow with an unobstructed path to the opponent, and making illegal helmet contact when it's clearly avoidable and the player delivering the blow has other available options.
The Packers have an interest in the changes to the use-of-the-helmet rules after Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams took two helmet-to-helmet hits last year from Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan and Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis.
The NFL included Trevathan's hit on Adams in the video it sent to all NFL teams about illegal hits that now warrant ejection. Those plays will be reviewed with both the New York office and stadium officials being able to suggest ejection from the game.
Controlling what the Packers can control, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his staff have kept open lines of communication with defensive players on the importance of practicing good form and tackling with their heads up.
"We've always had the fundamentals to make sure we always have our head up and do those type of things," Packers linebacker Blake Martinez said. "I know a lot of situations it's just accidental, where guys are just trying to play fast, trying to play aggressive and do those things and it happens. It's going to depend on how the refs incorporate the rule. Overall, I think we're doing a great job, especially coaches and players, just making sure we drill it, making sure we do it right."
Another point of emphasis the NFL has made with ties to the Packers is now preventing defensive players from landing with their full body weight on a quarterback, who is deemed defenseless due to the act of throwing the ball.
One of the primary examples of this last season was Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr's Week 6 hit on Aaron Rodgers, which resulted in a broken collarbone that limited the Packers quarterback to playing in only one more game the remainder of the season.
Kemp confirmed Barr's hit would now be a foul. It no longer matters if the quarterback is out of the pocket so long as he sets up as a passer. A defensive player can still tackle a quarterback, but he must shift his weight to the side to avoid a flag.
"I think that was one of them, yes," said Kemp when asked if the Barr hit factored into the emphasis. "The quarterback is too important of a player to 32 clubs. They didn't want that anymore. … If he sets up to throw a pass, then he's afforded those protections."
The NFL also simplified its catch rule, outlining three requirements to complete the process of a catch – control of the ball, two feet down or another body part down and making a football move such as making a third step, or extending to gain more yards.
The biggest change fans will notice is on kickoffs. Return teams will now have five players on each side (two outside the numbers and at least two lined up between the hash and the numbers) lined up within a foot of their 35-yard line. They must remain stationary until the ball is kicked.
The restraining line for the receiving team will be a 15-yard zone between the opponent's 45 and its 40. Teams must line up at least eight players in that "set-up zone," with a maximum of three players behind it, including the returner.
"It's not going to look like anything you've seen before," Kemp said. "They did that in an effort to save the play and make it more like a punt. They want players to be closer together as they're running down the field to try to eliminate those massive collisions when players are 15, 20 yards away and making contact like that. On a punt play, you don't get that because they're running down the field together, they set up and they're very close to each other. They did that to try to eliminate those big collisions."