DANA POINT, Calif. -- The NFL passed four player safety rules proposals today at its annual meeting, including one designed to prevent crushing blows to defenseless receivers like the one Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker absorbed from Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark last season.
Welker was forced to leave the Patriots' 33-10 loss to the Steelers on Nov. 30, after he was blasted by Clark on an uncatchable ball late in the third quarter.
A Matt Cassel pass was tipped and as Welker completed his route and looked for the tipped ball, which he had no chance to catch, Clark launched himself and struck Welker under the chin with a shoulder/forearm. Clark was penalized on the play, but he was not fined. The NFL's vice president of officiating later said Clark's hit was legal.
Although initial helmet-to-helmet contact with a defenseless receiver was already prohibited, the re-written rule passed today expands prohibited initial contact to include the forearm or shoulder in the head or neck area.
"I'm a big supporter of that rule," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "I think anyone who is a fan of any team in the league who sees a hit like that on a defenseless receiver... I just think it's uncalled for. If it was 'legal' under the old system, I don't see a need for it. I think we're setting ourselves up for someone to be seriously hurt unnecessarily. If [the hit by Clark] is a legal hit, we've got to seriously look at the whole area, and I think that's what they've done."
The other rules do away with the bunch formation on kickoffs, constrict kickoff return wedges to two players, and provide protection for a defenseless defender on crack-back blocks by offensive players similar to the one that Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward delivered to break the jaw of Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers last season.
That rule has similar language to the defenseless receiver rule, prohibiting initial contact by a blocker on a peel-back block to the head or neck area with the helmet, shoulder or forearm.