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Analysts Says NFL Safety Rules Put Quarterbacks At Risk Of Injury

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now to a different contest. It's week four of the National Football League season. Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers don't have starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He injured his knee last Sunday and joined a growing list of bruised and harried quarterbacks. That list is growing in part because some offensive linemen, the players who are supposed to protect the quarterback, aren't. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Quarterbacks are most effective upright. But the images that define this young season are QBs in varying stages of freefall. After Detroit's week two loss, one of the first questions for quarterback Matthew Stafford was, what body parts were x-rayed?

MATTHEW STAFFORD: My ribs and chest.

GOLDMAN: X-rays were negative, and Stafford got to play on - not so with Dallas's Tony Romo and the Steelers' Roethlisberger, both out for multiple games, both injured by defenders. The blame is falling squarely on the broad shoulders of offensive linemen. They're used to it. They know nobody pays attention to them unless they make a mistake. But the mistakes are perceived as so numerous now that longtime NFL executive and ESPN analyst Bill Polian described the problem as an epidemic.

BILL POLIAN: It is a sad state of affairs, and if it keeps up, we're going to be talking about backup quarterbacks playing a lot.

SCOTT PETERS: You know, so I played seven years in the NFL as an offensive lineman, and prior to that...

GOLDMAN: Scott Peters says he was frustrated throughout his career, which ended in 2009, because he never truly learned the technique necessary for his position. Peters, who now teaches line skills using mixed martial arts, thinks it's still an issue in the league and a big reason for the current problems.

PETERS: Offensive line is not an intuitive position. It's one that requires a tremendous amount of skill that goes against your intuition, whereas defensive linemen - not to put them down, but it's more reactive and responsive.

GOLDMAN: Offensive linemen are taught how to repel defenders with hands, arms, foot placement, body angle, all while backing up. But Peters says it's not taught enough, and the players' current labor contract is partly to blame. The 2011 CBA aimed to promote more player safety by reducing off-season practice time - five weeks less, in fact. But Peters says that's leaving O-linemen less skilled and quarterbacks more at risk.

PETERS: The real issue there is the restrictions that say, you can't do, quote, unquote, "football activities." So you can lift weights, but you can't work on your skills that make you better at football. At least you can't do that with coach's supervision, and that's what you need.

ERIC WINSTON: You know, I think that's, like, a pretty flimsy argument, in my opinion.

GOLDMAN: When Eric Winston says that, understand a couple of things. He's the president of the players union that fought for that contract with its reduced practice time, and he's a veteran offensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, a team with one of the league's best O-lines...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Dalton throws - A.J. Green at the 50.

GOLDMAN: That's been more responsible for this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Touchdown Cincinnati.

GOLDMAN: ...Than miscues and hurt quarterbacks. Winston says offensive linemen have ample time in the off season to work with coaches even with the restrictions - seven weeks' worth. He thinks O-lines struggle because teams have patchwork units instead of lines that have played together several years like the Bengals and because of bad drafting or teams not wanting to pay a lot for skilled linemen. Also, the current emphasis on spread offenses and passing has turned defensive linemen into huge, speedy quarterback hunters.

WINSTON: I don't think there's ever been a time in this league when its been harder to be an offensive lineman. The athleticism now on the defensive line is so great that it makes it so hard to block these guys.

GOLDMAN: As the season goes on, struggling lines will try to come together to play and protect and keep those backup quarterbacks off the field. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.