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NFL not expecting dramatic increase in ejections with new helmet rule

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NEW YORK — The NFL is anticipating only a handful of ejections this season as part of a new rule that prohibits players from lowering their helmets to initiate contact — one of the primary takeaways Tuesday from the first day of a player safety summit at league headquarters.

A review of 40,000 plays from recent seasons revealed less than five instances of what would be considered a flagrant, and thus ejection-worthy, violation, according to NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent. One was a hit by Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan on Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams last season in Week 4, for which Trevathan was later suspended.

Penalty flags for the expanded rule — which replaced a previous prohibition on using the crown of the helmet to initiate contact — are expected to increase in 2018. But during the meeting, as well as in side conversations, Vincent and other league officials sought to downplay the possibility of the kind of mass ejections that characterize the NCAA targeting rule.

“We want officials to enforce the rule,” Vincent said. “I don’t want to say it’s going to be two, three, five [penalties per game] or whatever. If they see it, call it. …But there were four plays that we saw today that would rise to the level of ejection based on the new rule. That’s it.”

League owners hastily approved the rule in March before it was fully fleshed out. As written, it calls for a 15-yard penalty and a potential ejection on any player who “lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” It will apply whether the player hits an opponent’s helmet or any other part of his body, but it is “not to include bracing for contact,” according to the verbiage.

That caveat generated animated debate among the more than 50 owners, coaches, executives, officials and former players in the room. A handful of reporters sat in on portions of the meeting, as the group watched video of various plays to learn what the league considers legal and illegal plays.

Representatives of the competition committee pointed out that officials will draw a distinction between simply lowering helmets — which happens on every play — and the intentional act of lowering it to initiate contact with the opponent.

“I’m here because I wanted to get clarity on this,” Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said afterward. “I can watch this stuff on video, and I asked six times: Can you rewind that? I don’t have that option on the field. I just want to see how they’re going to officiate it when its full speed on the field.”

Lynn said he finished the day “clearer” than when he began. But group consensus on some plays was difficult to reach. Most notable was a run last season by New England Patriots tailback Dion Lewis. On the play, both Lewis and Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen lowered their heads into each other. Should Lewis have been penalized? Allen? Neither? Members of the competition committee and officiating department disagreed during the discussion.

Coaches in the room included Lynn, Dan Quinn (Falcons), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), Todd Bowles (New York Jets), Mike Vrabel (Tennessee Titans) and Matt Patricia (Detroit Lions). Several of them voiced concern about whether running backs will be held to the same standard, and whether they would need to be taught new techniques on the fly. The same is true for, say, pulling guards and running backs who are blocking blitzers.

Quinn made a suggestion that was quickly adopted: Head coaches throughout the league will collaborate on a position-specific teaching video for teams to study during training camp. The coaches would provide the voice-overs to distinguish from standard NFL videos.

“I’m close to 90 percent clear on this,” Quinn said. “The thing that’s keeping you up at night is the way to get it taught at each position. [With the coach videos], that way we’re all teaching under the same guidelines. This isn’t a team issue. It’s an issue of how we’re trying to make the game better. It’s time for all of us to share the right examples. It has nothing to do with Team X’s technique being better than Team Y’s. It’s more like getting all 32 teams to be on the same page and talk the same way.”

League officials will use Tuesday’s discussion to finalize a set of standards for ejection. Owners also must approve the use of replay to review ejections, likely during the May 21-23 spring meetings. Most people in the room Tuesday agreed that replay should be a mandatory safety net for officials tasked with ejecting players who flagrantly lower their helmets to initiate contact.

“I think we’re going to have to have replay for ejections,” Lynn said.

The second day of this two-day summit will focus on the future of the kickoff. Vincent said Tuesday that the league is not planning to eliminate the kickoff for 2018, but instead hopes to make heavy modifications to make it safer. Wednesday’s meeting will feature a brainstorming session as well as an attempt to build a consensus for writing a new rule, one that could also be approved by owners in May.

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Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan says win over Carolina Panthers may be ‘confidence builder’

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It has been a disappointing and, at times, embarrassing season so far for the Atlanta Falcons, but quarterback Matt Ryan wants to think that Thursday’s victory in Carolina could be the spark for yet another second-half surge.

The Falcons held on to a fourth-quarter lead for just the second time in five games in 2020 thanks to a Todd Gurley touchdown run and an interception by Blidi Wreh-Wilson and beat the Panthers 25-17 at Bank of America Stadium.

“I hope it’s the start of something,” Ryan said. “I really feel like, although we’re 2-6, I feel like we’ve been in some tight ones. We’ve played some good football. I think we can play some really tough football here in the second half of the season.”

The Falcons did that in 2019, following a 1-7 start with a 6-1 finish that included victories in the final four games. Can they repeat that over the next two months?

It won’t be easy. They have a winnable game against Denver next week, but after their bye they play New Orleans twice in a three-week span. Then there’s two games against Tampa Bay and one against Kansas City, as well, in addition to games against the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. The Broncos and Chargers are the only opponents remaining with losing records.

“We’ve been in every game we’ve played this year,” Ryan said. “We’ve had some crazy losses, just to be frank, and I really believe that we’ve got the caliber of team to go be in the games we’re going to play the rest of the season.

“Why can’t we win them all? That’s the mindset that I have.”

The way the Falcons beat the Panthers gives Ryan hope. They overcame a 2-for-6 performance in the red zone and the loss of leading receiver Calvin Ridley to an ankle injury. The Falcons held a 13-minute advantage in time of possession, totaled 401 yards, held the Panthers to 2-of-10 on third down and sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater three times.

Ryan also pitched in with a 13-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career, to become just the third quarterback in franchise history to have double-digit rushing touchdowns. He trails only Michael Vick (21) and Steve Bartkowski (11).

Thursday was just the second time this season that the Falcons won a game in which they entered the fourth quarter with a lead. They had been 1-3 in that situation, including last week’s loss to Detroit on the game’s final play. The Falcons led the Lions 14-13 in the fourth quarter but Todd Gurley’s touchdown run left the Lions with too much time and Matthew Stafford’s TD pass to T.J. Hockenson gave the Lions a 23-22 victory.

That was just the latest — and most painful — fourth-quarter flop. The Falcons blew a five-point lead in Week 2 in a 40-39 loss to Dallas and a 16-point lead in Week 3 to Chicago.

Until the victory over the Panthers, the Falcons’ only hold on a fourth-quarter lead was two weeks ago against Minnesota.

“It just felt like it was going to be a different night,” Ryan said. “Our defense stepped up and did a great job making plays. I’m happy for them. To come through in that type of situation, that’s a confidence builder for us moving forward.”

And, Ryan hopes, the start of another second-half rally.

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Hit on Carolina Panthers’ Teddy Bridgewater draws ejection for Atlanta Falcons’ Charles Harris

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Atlanta Falcons defensive end Charles Harris was ejected in the third quarter of Thursday night’s 25-17 win over the Carolina Panthers after a vicious hit that briefly sidelined quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Bridgewater was scrambling on the third-and-7 play when he was tripped and went down for a 2-yard loss. Harris came in after Bridgewater was down and delivered a blow to the helmet.

Bridgewater went to the sideline tent to be checked for a possible concussion. He came out a few minutes later and began throwing on the sideline.

Bridgewater returned in the fourth quarter after clearing concussion protocol.

Former XFL star P.J. Walker took over at quarterback for three plays and the Panthers settled for a 39-yard field goal to pull within 19-17.

Bridgewater was 10-for-15 passing for 112 yards and a touchdown before the play.

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Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley ruled out vs. Carolina Panthers with ankle injury

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Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley suffered a left ankle injury during the first half of Thursday’s game against the Carolina Panthers.

Ridley was hurt when he was tackled by safety Jeremy Chinn at the end of a 19-yard catch-and-run late in the first half. He limped off the field and went to the locker room. He was originally listed as questionable to return but was ruled out early in the second half.

Ridley, who had three catches for 42 yards at the time of his injury, entered the game as the Falcons’ leader in receptions (40), receiving yards (615) and receiving touchdowns (six). The Falcons have relied on him heavily because Julio Jones had missed two games with a hip injury.

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