Helmet hits in Steelers-Browns game test NFL’s concussion-reduction strategy
The Pittsburgh Steelers will begin a week of preparations Monday for their next game, and they will do so with three players, including two starters, in the NFL concussion protocol.
Wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson and linebacker Ola Adeniyi were placed in the protocol after suffering concussions in the Steelers’ 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night.
Smith-Schuster and Johnson exited after being on the receiving end of helmet-to-helmet hits by Browns defensive backs. Johnson had blood running out of his ear as he was being escorted to the medical tent after Damarious Randall’s hit that warranted an ejection for the Browns safety.
Adeniyi was hurt making a tackle on punt coverage after the first series of the game.
The NFL has initiated rules changes and worked with manufacturers to develop safer helmets in an attempt to reduce concussions. Still, players believe some head shots are inevitable and typically not done with malice by defensive players.
“That part is football,” center Maurkice Pouncey said hours before he was suspended for three games for fighting with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett. “Guys are trying not to hit guys helmet to helmet. That’s not the first time that’s happened. We can’t say that was it. This was just sporadic. It was out of the blue.”
Until Thursday, the Steelers had two players enter concussion protocol in the first nine games: quarterback Mason Rudolph after he was knocked cold by Ravens safety Earl Thomas in Week 5, and guard Ramon Foster in Week 8. Rudolph missed one game. Foster missed two games before he was cleared to play Thursday in Cleveland.
“It’s a rough game that is played,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “That shouldn’t mean it happens, it is what it is. … But that just happens.”
The NFL took measures in 2018 to penalize players for lowering their head to initiate contact. Officials called 16 such penalties that season, but that number has jumped to 19 infractions through the first 10 weeks of 2019, according to pro-football-reference.com.
In 2018, after seeing a 16% increase in concussions from the previous year, the NFL initiated its Injury Reduction Plan in an attempt to reduce the number of head injuries. The three-pronged initiative included examining preseason practice strategies, getting players to wear the safest helmets approved by the NFL and penalizing players for lowering their helmet.
In the first season of those initiatives, the number of concussions dropped from 178 to 127, the fewest in a season since 2014. However, according to data compiled during the preseason and released in October, concussions this summer increased by 44% from 2018. Players suffered 49 concussions in preseason games compared to 34 in 2018, although the number of concussions suffered in training camp practices dropped by 33%.
The NFL is expected to release its 2019 data in January. For a snapshot: this week, 30 players were listed as having concussions on pro-football-reference.com’s injury-tracking tab.
The Browns’ Randall became the fourth player this season to be ejected for a helmet-related foul during the course of play. (Garrett was the fifth for using Rudolph’s helmet as a weapon.) By comparison, three players were ejected last season for helmet-related incidents, and just one after Week 2, according to quirkyresearch.com.
Randall was the third to be tossed for hitting a defenseless receiver, joining Tampa Bay’s Carlton Davis and Oakland’s Vontaze Burfict, who received a historic 12-game suspension for his hit on Indianapolis tight end Jack Doyle.
San Francisco’s Kwon Alexander also was ejected in Week 7 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a sliding quarterback.
Randall’s hit on Johnson midway through the third quarter left the Steelers with three healthy receivers to finish the game.
“Damarious was not trying to hurt anybody,” Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said. “He was trying to make a play on the ball. I think even the Steelers guys, they know that. The refs were talking about it around the ball. Obviously, this is a safety-first league, they know he was going for the ball, but when stuff like that happens, they have to call it.”
After already adding Tevin Jones from the practice squad to provide depth at the position against the Browns, the Steelers signed wide receiver Deon Cain off the Colts practice squad Saturday.
It remains to be seen whether Smith-Schuster or Johnson will be cleared to join those players on the practice field this week as the Steelers move on to their game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .