Hitting QBs puts defenders in quandary

They are expected to rush passer hard, but then not him illegally, and that's difficult to determine instinctively

The NFL has gone out of its way to protect quarterbacks — the shiny hood ornaments on their billion dollar product.

Can't hit 'em too high, can't hit 'em too low, can't hit 'em as they slide … and, for heaven's sake, don't breathe on them too heavily.

Despite the league's merciful mandates to protect their marquee players, many quarterbacks continue to go down from injuries ranging from a fractured collarbone (Aaron Rodgers), torn groin and high ankle sprain (Jay Cutler), torn knee ligament (Sam Bradford), sprained ankles (Matt Schaub and Peyton Manning) and dislocated shoulder (Christian Ponder).

Who will be next? And what other rules can the NFL legislate to protect quarterbacks? The NFL competition committee reportedly plans to look into more ways to shield them this offseason.

"It's football, man. It's going to happen," quarterback Joe Flacco said this week as his Ravens prepared to face the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field. "If you don't get hurt, you're just really, really fortunate. I mean, everybody deals with it. They can protect you all they want, but in truly protect you, it has to become a 7-on-7 flag football league. There's no way around it."

Bears defensive lineman Corey Wootton forever will be remembered for delivering the final sack of Brett Favre. The clean hit resulted in a concussion for Favre, whose head landed on a frozen field.

"You never want to see someone hurt," Wootton said. "The biggest thing you have to do is play hard and play clean."

But Wootton and other defensive players around the league feel challenged to zero in on the legal sweet spot to hit the quarterback.

"It's tough," Wootton said. "You are working your butt off to try to get (to the quarterback). Sometimes people are throwing you down to the ground and you are down to (the quarterback's) knees. Some guys get flagged, so the biggest thing you have to be is relentless to him and then when you're there, just try not to make it helmet-to-helmet. Most of the time if you don't do that or you don't go too low you're pretty good."

The Browns lost quarterback Brandon Weeden to a sprained thumb in September before backup Brian Hoyer sustained a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 3. The line of succession brought them to Jason Campbell. The Bills lost rookie starter EJ Manuel to a knee injury early in the season, then turned to Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis before getting Manuel back last week.

Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker wants controlled aggression from his players when they go after Flacco and other quarterbacks.

"We just make sure that our players know the rules," Tucker said. "Then we coach them through the rules every opportunity we get. … What the target zone is, when you need to pull up, how many steps you get. … Things like that. Just have to have great awareness and judgment on the field. The players are used to making those split-second decisions and those judgments in other parts of the game. So there is a lot of carryover with that.

"Everyone is playing by the same set of rules, so we have to embrace the rules and just make sure we understand what they are. We want to be a disciplined group and not have any pre-snap penalties and flagrant penalties. At times we're going to have aggressive penalties. Then we coach through those. That's kind of how we approach it."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34

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