Calls for illegal helmet hits down 60 percent in second half of preseason

Penalties for the NFL's new helmet rule remained at a lower level in Week 4 of the preseason, signifying that a midsummer slowdown will hold as the league moves into the regular season.

Officials threw 11 flags for players illegally lowering their helmets into opponents during Thursday night's preseason finales, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They threw nine in Week 3, meaning that the NFL had a 60 percent reduction in such penalties after its competition committee said Aug. 22 that "inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or face mask is not a foul."

In the first 33 games of the preseason, officials called the foul 51 times for an average of 1.55 per game. In the final 32 games, there were 20 for an average of 0.625 per game.

Overall during the preseason, enforcement focused largely on defensive players and especially on defensive backs. Of the 71 total flags, 59 went against defenders, nine during special teams and three on offensive players. Defensive backs were targeted on 40 of the 71 calls. There was only one ejection, of then-Indianapolis Colts safety Shamarko Thomas in Week 1.

NFL owners approved the new rule in March, attributing the change to medical and engineering data that they said showed a greater likelihood of brain and neck injuries when players lower their helmets and create a linear posture in their back. Reported concussions rose to 291 in 2017, the highest total on record, and owners were alarmed by the serious neck injury suffered by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier in December.

The rule states that "it is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent." Flagrant instances are subject to ejection, which must be confirmed by replay review.

That wording led to different interpretations among players, coaches and officials. Although the committee never intended incidental or inadvertent contact to be penalized, the clarification made that clear. Officials are also expected to avoid throwing flags when a player lowers his head to brace for contact.