Webster's World

Maybe they lace Ndamukong Suh’s turkey on Thanksgiving. Or he gets upset that he has to work on a national holiday while the rest of America is busy putting its feet up. Or perhaps he just enjoys the spotlight of coast-to-coast prime time attention.

Whatever it is, Thanksgiving seems to have a habit of bringing out the worst in the Detroit defensive tackle and considering he plays for the Lions, we should get used to it because, of course, they are one of the teams that always plays on that November Thursday.

The NFL decided on Monday not to take action against Suh for his latest controversial hit and I can only assume that is because it was a lot more borderline than the head-stomping he dished out to Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith on Thanksgiving 2011.

Two years ago, there was scarcely a need for an investigation, no real requirement of a hearing other than to go through official channels before suspending him but this time there was just that small element of doubt and that was enough, it would appear, to get him off. Whether it is simply his reputation or that he was being incredibly clever with the way he did it, the kick he landed in Houston quarterback Matt Schaub’s groin last week seemed to many people to be quite deliberate, albeit well-disguised.

Certainly Schaub was in no doubt as he went on radio to trash Suh. From the tone of his voice and the things he had to say, clearly he feels Suh is a dirty player and that his antics have no place in professional football.

Schaub said: “You don’t want a player like that. The stuff that he stands for and the type of player he is, that’s not Houston Texan-worthy. That’s not what we’re about as a football team, as individuals, collectively as a group, we’re not that type of person.”

Not much room for doubt there, then. And let us keep in mind that when we talk about a dirty player, we are talking in the context of the NFL. By that, I mean that there are a lot of rough tactics employed on the gridiron which are simply considered to be part of the game and accepted as such by all the players. You don’t get into playing American football because you think it will be all nicey nice. As Pittsburgh’s great linebacker of the 1970s Jack Lambert used to tell kids in his summer training camps: “You gotta like hitting because if you don’t, then you need to go play tennis.”

So when NFL players start talking about ‘dirty’ play, they are really referring to stuff they consider to have crossed that line and entered a different dimension. There are a growing number of them who think Suh is firmly entrenched in that category, that he doesn’t even merit the benefit of the doubt which we would charitably call ‘living in the grey areas’.

But that in itself shines a light on part of the problem of football, and in particular, the sub-section of it which is played out in the trenches. One man’s grey area is another’s black-and-white. And while Schaub and many others feel Suh is way over the mark, there are plenty of people who think it is part of the game and that you cannot find the best extent of talent if you don’t accept that sometimes it will go a little too far and cross the line.

The battle between offensive and defensive linemen, while not pretty to the casual viewer’s eye, is the contest which shapes any football game. It is usually where a game is won and lost. It is the very core of the sport. If a defensive front can’t get to a quarterback or continually stuff the running game, they are out of hope. If an offensive line can’t protect or open holes, their whole team is going nowhere.

All of which makes the current debate on cut blocking interesting and which leads me to wonder if the NFL is about to make a snap decision which could change the game drastically, and not necessarily for the better.

Cut blocking is the scourge of defensive linemen. They absolutely detest it and for two distinctly different reasons. First of all, they consider it dirty play and one of the easiest ways for them to pick up a season-ending injury. Secondly, it gives the offensive line a chance to blow up so much of what they are trying to do. Successful cut blocks by tackles on defensive ends stop them getting to the quarterback and has them thinking more about their knees than a sack, while good cut blocking on the interior of the offensive line can ensure a running back finds a hole much easier, as a 300lb obstacle is more likely to be lying on the ground in pain than filling the gap the runner wants to exploit.

It is important to draw a distinction between cut blocks and chop blocks, with the first being legal and second most definitely not. To list the entire rule and all its sub-sections would take another whole column but essentially the difference comes down to chop blocking occurs when a player blocks an opponent below the thighs and from the side or behind while a cut block should come from in front of the opponent. A cut block also cannot take place while a player is engaged by another player. (There are multiple technical details to the rule, far too numerous to list here).

Offensive linemen will tell you cutting is a legitimate practice because it happens while everyone is in explosive motion and therefore is less likely to result in an injury. The real danger is when an offensive lineman goes low on an opponent while that player is more or less motionless, hence the reason hitting him low is banned while he is engaged in a face-to-face block with another player.

The problem with cutting – the legal version – is that it is still incredibly dangerous, and many players feel cut blocks could be debated at the very least over their legality by the rule’s definition.

Frequently a cut occurs while the play is going sideways. The runner is moving toward the sideline looking for a gap and the two sets of linemen are moving sideways following the play’s motion. An offensive lineman on the backside of the play knows that if he can cut down a defensive lineman who is pursuing the play, it will almost certainly make the runner’s life easier when he looks inside for the gap he needs to break the line. In that instance, the block frequently comes from the side or very close to it, even if the offensive lineman can claim that by virtue of a few degrees he was technically in front of his opponent.

There was a cut block in the week 11 game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore which has sparked this whole argument again. I have watched it over and over and still I wince every time. Ravens guard Marshal Yanda came down the line on a running play late in the first half and hit Casey Hampton in an area between the side and the back of the knee. He ended up rolling down the back of Hampton’s left leg. Hampton got up cursing and furious – not least of all because he was being blocked by Matt Birk at the time Yanda hit him.

The hit by Yanda was ruled legal and if that is a legal hit, then the game is going to hell. Yanda, and the coaches who taught him repeatedly how to do it, designed that one in order to get Hampton out of the hole into which Ray Rice wanted to run. It didn’t work by the way because Hampton is such a beast he still got in the gap and blew up the play even though he was engaged by Birk in front and blocked by Yanda from the side/behind.

That sort of cut block, and even the other sort where a lineman goes straight ahead for the knees of the man opposite him, can be extremely effective but they really are cowardly. They are designed to attack a vulnerable part of the body, the knees, and they also end up causing damage to the ankles. The problem with knees is that they are an unusual joint in the body. They are described as a hanging joint because of the unique way they are constructed. They are designed to go only one way and that is forward. Any motion sideways or back and they get tend to get damaged. That can happen naturally in the course of a football game but to draw up a scheme which deliberately attacks that is beyond the spirit of the game.

One of the players who probably has to put up with a great deal of that sort of treatment is Ndamukong Suh. After all, he plays in the middle of the defensive line and he will see plenty of that in his career. In fact, he probably saw plenty of it last week against Houston because the Texans are one of the chief proponents of cut blocking in the NFL.

Matt Schaub talks about what Suh did as not being “Houston Texan-worthy” and yet every week he gets a perfect view of his linemen – the people who are paid to protect him – cut blocking opponents at the knees and justifying it by saying it is in the rule book. It may be in the rules but it is a long way outside any moral code players should have when it comes to how they treat each other. I wonder how many offensive linemen would swap to the other side of the line and still claim it was okay because the rules allowed it.

There are some coaches, some teams who refuse to teach it or allow it on their teams. They prefer to do unto others as they would like others to do to them but the debate becomes skewed by the fact that teams that do it tend to make a success of it. And if other people are doing it and beating you by doing it, then you are bound to feel not just a sense of needing to join in but a moral justification for doing so.

The NFL is going to take another look at the rule in the close season and I find it difficult to believe they will leave it untouched. Will they go so far as to ban every block below the thighs? I doubt it. Instead they will probably refine what is allowed to take place between the big boys at the line of scrimmage, where the scene of carnage on most downs is difficult enough to officiate.

Banning it altogether could allow defenses to become more dominant. It could lead to more sacks, fewer rushing yards, fewer points and more punting. All of that would probably lead to a call at the end of next season to reinstate the old rule. Nobody said there wouldn’t be complications.

But surely the over-riding governing factor has to be the health of players. It may cause offensive coaches headaches but what is really so wrong in asking them to find ways in strength, scheme and technique to defeat the opposing linemen with blocking that occurs only in the upper part of their bodies?

After all, haven’t we done enough in the past 20 years to bend the rules in favour of the offenses? Maybe it is time defenders got a break from the rules makers.