Green Bay Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk knows a lot about taking players down. The former Pro Bowl pick averages more than 100 tackles each season — that’s about seven a game. In light of the NFL's recent charges for hitting, we asked the veteran to share how he sees NFL offenses changing and his take on the league’s new rules.
You’re starting your ninth season, how have you seen the game change?
The offensive game now spreads people out, to get guys in open space and isolate people. It’s tough matchups more than it is running the ball, pounding like it might have been a while ago. But at some point in every game it’s still old-school smashmouth football.
What about the rise of the read-option offense?
That was the big talk of every team throughout the last off-season. Every defensive coordinator was working on how to stop the read-option. With all these quarterbacks who are so athletic now, they can run and throw. Everyone now has more of a plan on how they’re going to attack the offense. Everyone has to be disciplined and make sure his assignment is found. To defend the read-option you have to have someone accounting for everybody. At the same time offense is finding ways to get a guy out in open space. You didn’t see it as much this last year in the NFL, but it definitely came in critical situations. Especially in the playoffs, teams will come back to it.
Why wasn’t it used more?
We’ve started to adjust to it, but the main reason you can’t do it the whole season is because you can’t get your 100 million dollar man hurt. When the quarterback is the franchise, you can’t do it too many times. You have to find a way to limit the risk. For it to be your staple, it’s going be with a young quarterback on his first contract.
How have the tackling-rule changes affected the game?
I think the whole "defenseless receiver" and not leading with the head rules have changed things a lot. Anyone coming across the middle feels a lot safer than they used to. Safeties are so big and fast now that they’d line up shots on people from a long distance, have monstrous hits, and take a player out of the game. You still have big shots, but they’re nothing like they used to be because we need to protect guys. I understand that, but I think the comfort level of receivers… well, it’s hard for them to be scared to come across the middle like they used to.
As a linebacker, what have the changes meant for you?
You have to change how you tackle, but sometimes you don’t have a choice on it. You can still get fined for protecting yourself as a defender and trying to get the guy down. There’ve been split-second situations where I turn around and the guy is on me. He might be catching a little slant and his head is already lowered and coming at me. I have to protect myself and lower my head. That might result in head-to-head contact that I can’t avoid and I’ll probably get fined for it.
The same situation happened last year in Chicago. I argued that I was just protecting myself and it was big shot for both of us. I got him down but didn’t have any chance to change my position. The fines are crazy now. I think the minimum is $15,000. Sometimes those safeties have a huge shot that’s considered illegal. They’ll be fined $50,000 for the first time. It’s ridiculous.
Do you think the new rules are ultimately for the best?
I understand they need to protect the game and protect players. It used to be just protect the QBs — the guys who sell the tickets. Now everybody’s protected, even defensive guys by taking away cut blocks, I’m glad they made that change. Also, I could be running, not see a receiver and he could hit me right on the side of the head and not get fined. Now that’s a penalty, so at least now it’s going both ways. But I don’t know how much farther they can go with it. Now you see more guys hurting their knees because the safeties have to go low and chop guys down. Otherwise it’s a penalty. I don’t know where you go from there.