Big Hit 5
Sept. 17, Cincinnati
safety Brian Russell had to make just such a timely decision on the second
weekend of last season. The Browns were trailing the Bengals 34-10 late in the
fourth quarter when Cincinnati lined up in a four-wideout set on
third-and-seven from its 48-yard line. Receiver Chad Johnson was split widest;
across from him, Russell, a 6' 2", 207-pound hitting machine, was lined up
12 yards deep, on the hash mark.
At the snap
Johnson shook free from bump-and-run corner Leigh Bodden and ran a tight slant.
Quarterback Carson Palmer took a three-step drop and released the ball 1.9
seconds after the snap, but the pass was high and behind Johnson. Russell had
read the play from the start. "They're way ahead [on the scoreboard], so
they're probably not going to throw a deep ball," says Russell. "That
means I'm not going to fly out of there in my backpedal. I'm sitting
flat-footed and looking to drive forward on the ball. Chad Johnson was real
wide, so I'm thinking slant.
"Once I see
the receiver release, my eyes go to the quarterback.At that point you get a
fraction of a second to decide if you're going for the ball or going for the
hit. You go on instinct. I didn't think I could get there for the interception,
so the decision is made. I'll go for the hit. You run downhill to the man, and
if you get there a little early, they throw the flag. If you try to stop and
wait, to time it perfectly all the time, you'll never make any plays. This is
the game we play. I have to be physical. You have to pull the trigger and make
Bodden jumped the
cut and intercepted the ball in front of Johnson, who was reaching back, fully
extended and wide open for Russell's blow. Russell went airborne and connected
with Johnson in the upper chest and chin. Johnson's helmet flew off his head,
and his body went limp and fell sideways to the ground. He lay there for 46
seconds before rising and walking slowly off the field.
declined to talk with SI about the hit, stood bleeding on the sideline while
the game clock expired. In the postgame locker room he was glassy-eyed. When
reporters asked Johnson about the play and he was unable to recall it, Bengals'
p.r. director Jack Brennan cut short the interview session. Johnson received
stitches in his chin and suffered a concussion, but he played the following
weekend in a win over Pittsburgh.
As a safety who
frequently plays in the Cover Two defense, Russell is at the epicenter of the
NFL's big-hit conundrum. His essential job in that popular scheme is to break
on wideouts and deliver monster shots. Yet the league is trying to crack down
on helmet hits and other dangerous plays.
"I try to lead
with a shoulder," says Russell, who became a free agent after the season
and signed with the Seattle Seahawks, "but in the middle of a play there's
no time to stop and wonder if you're doing it right. And while you're hitting
with your shoulder pads, you can't put your helmet in your pocket. It's right
PADS? WHO NEEDS
NFL players are
stunningly unprotected. Rules require only that they wear a helmet and shoulder
pads. Many players wear no more protection than that. "Big old pads?"
says the Ravens' Lewis. "The game is too fast for that." (Contrast this
with college football: The NCAA requires that every player wear not only the
helmet and shoulder pads but also soft knee pads, thigh pads, hip pads and a