Almost once a game, an NFL player absorbs an illegal blow to the head or neck that could put his career — or worse — at risk.
The NFL has been trying to prevent such blows over the past four years, targeting improper technique and making a point to penalize and fine players for hits that leave them and their opponents vulnerable. Yet an Associated Press review of penalties through the first 11 weeks of the season found those hits are still prevalent.
The AP reviewed 549 penalties, 491 of which fell under the category of major infractions: unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer, face masks and roughing the quarterback.
Of the penalties charted over the first 162 games of the season, the AP identified 156 involving contact with the head and neck — an average of .962 per game. Of those, 38 were for head-wrenching face masks, 25 were for horse collars and 93 were for hits to the head. Quarterbacks (40) and receivers (38) shared the brunt of those hits almost equally, with players at other positions absorbing the other 15 blows.
The numbers can be interpreted a variety of ways.
The league declined comment, though it made a statement of sorts in the offseason when it decided against the 5 percent hike in minimum fines, as allowed for in the union contract, after determining players were adjusting to the rules.
A sentiment among the players the AP spoke to on offense was that they appreciate all the NFL has done to protect them. But, in the words of Titans running back Chris Johnson, they know that "sometimes you just can't control where you hit somebody."
Defensive players acknowledged they have to do their part to make the game safer.
"The face mask, that's going to happen. The pass interference, those things are going to happen. The stupid fouls, hitting the quarterbacks late and doing all the other stuff we've done, we have to eliminate it," said Titans safety Bernard Pollard, who has been fined $62,000 this season.
But the defenders also reiterated a long-held belief that they're held to a different standard than their offensive counterparts.
"No doubt," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Guys are still getting penalized for clean shots, getting fined for clean shots, and there's no other explanation to it. Just like they're holding us accountable for trying to make that right hit, they've got to hold themselves accountable for making the right calls on the field, and making the right decision on who to fine and how much to fine."
True to the defenders' complaints, the AP review tallied 224 major infractions against the defense, with only 69 going against the offense.
Similarly, penalties for low hits, which many thought would rise when defenders were forced to focus away from the head and neck, were relatively low — only 35. That small number included illegal cuts, chop and peelback blocks against the offense for hits on defenders — penalties the defensive players argue are called far too rarely and put their careers at as much risk as the above-the-shoulder hits.
"The way offenses are playing now and the way running backs block now, I think it's almost every play," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said when asked how often a defensive player's legs get targeted.
New England tight end Rob Gronkowski's season ended abruptly Sunday with a knee injury when he took a low hit from Cleveland safety T.J. Ward. No penalty was called. Ward said he knows he can't go for the high hit.
"But we have to play this game," Ward said. "We have to play it the way that they force us to, and unfortunately, it incurred an injury for him."
Of the 35 penalties for low hits, 10 came against the defense for hits to the quarterbacks. The league's propensity for protecting the passer continues at almost every spot on the field. Over the first 11 weeks, there were 32 flags for infractions against quarterbacks that didn't involve hits to the head or legs — for example, a late hit on a sliding quarterback.
The NFL still makes a big splash out of suspensions and fines levied under the umbrella of protecting players. Ndamukong Suh, a multiple offender, got a $100,000 fine — largest in league history for on-field conduct — for his Week 2 low block on John Sullivan of the Vikings during an interception return.
More recently, Titans safety Michael Griffin served a one-game suspension for a low hit on Oakland tight end Mychal Rivera. When asked what he could have done differently, Griffin said a league official "told me there's no clear black-and-white answer."
"You have to start thinking about how you're going to hit the guy when you get there," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "I think it's very, very hard, very difficult. It definitely is necessary. I think it has helped the game in that way. But I think you've got to be careful in how these guys are fined and things like that going forward."
Whatever the mixed messages, the NFL appears satisfied with the way players are adjusting to the rules, given the league's decision not to raise fine amounts.
Total fines issued by the NFL have declined by 32 percent from 2009 to 2012 (668 to 451) and also decreased 4.5 percent between 2011 and 2012 (472 to 451). Fines for illegal hits on quarterbacks have declined 46.4 percent since 2009 (114 to 61).
All of which points to a safer game — but a game that nevertheless, at least on average, puts at least one player in jeopardy in every game in every stadium every Thursday, Sunday and Monday.
"It's a warrior game," said Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, on injured reserve after suffering a dislocated hip on a play in which four players took turns blocking him, both high and low. "You're going to have collisions. You're going to have those injuries. You just try to do the best you can with them and play within the rules they set."
AP Sports Writers Genaro Armas in Green Bay, Wisc., Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., Tom Withers in Cleveland, Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Joseph White in Washington contributed to this report.