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Joseph, Broncos expect early flags as officials 'figure out' standard for new contact rule

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos won't play a preseason contest for another eight days, but the team received its first look Thursday night at how the NFL's new helmet-contact regulations will be enforced.

During Thursday night's Hall of Fame game between the Ravens and Bears, official threw several flags for violations of the new rule, which prohibits players from lowering their head to initiate contact.

On Friday — just hours before an officiating crew was scheduled to visit with the Broncos to review all of the new rule changes and points of emphasis — Head Coach Vance Joseph offered his thoughts on the first available examples of how the rule would be officiated.

"I saw one of the plays, and I get it," Joseph said. "It's for the safety of the game. Again, we've been teaching keeping your head and seeing what you hit for the last 15-20 years. I think the offensive guys have to get used to playing with their heads up. As a runner, it's natural for you to defend yourself by dropping your helmet because you're going to get hit. Coaching that part, in my opinion, is going to be the tough part —not the defenders. That's been taught and that's been coached for a long time, with the offensive guys using their stiff arm and putting the ball in the proper hand, using their shoulders versus their head. It's going to take teaching."

Line judge Julian Mapp visited Denver on Friday with his crew, and he clarified to the media how several situations would be officiated.

"If we see a player — it can be an offensive player or a defensive player — if we see a player lower his head and initiate contact to any part of the opponent's body, that will be a foul," Mapp said. "If we see it, we'll flag it. … I know a lot of people think the contact has to be in the head and neck area, but the [illegal] contact can be any part of the body."

If, for example, a running back and linebacker were to both lower their heads at the goal line, both players could be hit with a penalty and the down would be repeated. And if a quarterback initiates contact with his helmet during a quarterback sneak, he could also be flagged on the play.

The calls — which will be made at the officiating crew's discretion — will not be reviewable.

Players can be ejected and later suspended in severe instances, but Mapp said Friday he only saw two plays from 2017 in which a player would have been ejected under the new rule.

Regardless of the call, Mapp said he and his crew won't shy away from making a call that was implemented in order to make the game safer.

"We're not concerned about it, because that can happen on any foul," Mapp said. Offensive pass interference, defensive pass interference, defensive holding, offensive holding — a foul can happen on the last play of the game that can take a score away or give a team another opportunity to score. With that, we call what we see. There may be a little debate on some of the things that we see, but we call what we see."

The Broncos' players had yet to hear from Mapp when they spoke to the media on Friday, but their initial impressions after Thursday's game indicated some level of concern.

"I saw some of it," safety Justin Simmons said. "As a matter fact, I kind of turned it off because of some of the tackling. I understand you've got to keep guys healthy, but I think if you ask any NFL guy, you know the risk you're signing up for and this is just a game that we love. It's tough, especially for a defender. Because you're just trying to do your job and make the right play, especially when you're at the high safety position. If you can't get there to break up the pass, you have to be able to lay a hit to be able break up the pass. That's being eliminated from the game. There's so many things being eliminated. So that's definitely frustrating."

Both Simmons and safety Darian Stewart acknowledged, though, that however much they disagree with the rule, they'll aim to follow it while on the field.

"Those are the rules," Simmons said. "You can't hurt your team. Guys have to be able to stay on the field and play by the rules. We're just going to have to find ways to work around it."

In part, the Broncos' upcoming preseason games will be for runners and defenders alike to figure out the subtleties of how the rule will be enforced.

Joseph said Friday he expects the referees to use the games in a similar fashion.

"I think early on there will [be more flags]," Joseph said. "They're trying to figure out also what the standard is. To me, when you watch a football game, we all can recognize a play that we don't want — when it's vicious. We don't want those plays when guys are getting hit with the helmet. It's not a weapon, it's for protection. We've seen it here and there, so I think we all have recognized that."

On a larger scale, though, Joseph seems to empathize with his players.

"I don't want to get to the point where every hard hit is a penalty," he said. "I don't want to go there. It's football. That's my concern.

"Every hard, football, clean hit cannot be a penalty. That's my concern."

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