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  • José Luis Villegas /

    Safety Donte Whitner is known for hard hits like this against Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley in the 49ers' season-opening victory.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Donte Whitner, left, congratulates rookie Eric Reid with a head butt after Reid intercepted a pass during the 49ers' season-opening victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Unclear rules on hard hits leave defenders dazed and confused

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 - 5:28 pm

SANTA CLARA – Dear Donte: Well, it looks like we messed up. Upon further review, the hit for which you were penalized in the last game was perfectly legal. Oops! Please accept our apologies. We'd like to tell you this won't happen again, but we are human. Best wishes, the NFL

No, it doesn't happen like that. No apologetic letter is put in the mail when an official makes a bad call. In fact, the lack of a letter from the league offices – and the fine that usually comes with it – is the closest a player gets to an admission a mistake was made.

Donte Whitner, the 49ers' hard-hitting safety, was not fined for the hit on Indianapolis Colts running back Ahmad Bradshaw that drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call. Whitner hit Bradshaw with his shoulder, not the crown of his helmet as officials suspected at the time.

And he doesn't expect to be fined this week after his hit on Rams wide receiver Chris Givens on Thursday in St. Louis.

As Givens descended after snagging a would-be, 12-yard touchdown pass, Whitner lowered his shoulder and crushed the receiver, dislodging the ball. Whitner again was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and the Rams scored on the next play. In that situation, Whitner's job is to separate the receiver from the football. The call left him wondering what he's supposed to do. Tickle Givens until he drops the ball? Yell "Boo!" as loud as he can?

"I think I'm just supposed to let them catch a touchdown now," Whitner said this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "I think that's what the National Football League wants, but I'm not going to give them that. I'm going to continue to play physical, continue to hit the right way, lead with my shoulder, and I'm not targeting anybody's head."

The NFL is doing the right thing about being vigilant against helmet-to-helmet tackling and the vicious head shots that result in concussions, but officials are penalizing big hits along with the bad hits. And big hits are why people tune in.

They're what put Ronnie Lott in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In this day and age, Lott's jolting, game-changing tackles would instead be drive-extending penalties.

It's easy to see why Whitner is confused.

During the 2011 divisional playoffs, he had the biggest – and most celebrated – hit in the Bay Area since Lott left town when, with the New Orleans Saints driving for a certain score in the first quarter, he walloped running back Pierre Thomas and caused a fumble. It swung the momentum in the first half of what became the 49ers' first playoff victory in nine years. If he retired tomorrow, that would be Whitner's most famous play, his most golden NFL moment.

He also struck Thomas' helmet with his own helmet, and Thomas was knocked out of the game and didn't return. There was no flag, no fine – just praise.

In Thursday's game, Whitner was penalized because Givens was descending after the catch and therefore considered a defenseless player.

Whitner's shoulder struck Givens in the face mask.

Said color commentator Mike Mayock: "If he's a defenseless offensive player, your elbow, your forearm, your shoulder, your helmet cannot go above (the receiver's) shoulder pads."

Whitner, however, didn't aim above Givens' shoulders. In fact, he aimed low, and Givens, still descending, dropped and seemed to turn into his strike zone.

Defensive players long have argued that it's impossible to pinpoint their hits when their opponent is moving. They've also argued that plays happen too quickly for officials to make the nuanced judgments necessary.

Whitner's recent penalties are examples of both.

"I guess it was a big hit," Whitner said after the Colts game. "Any big hit now in the National Football League is automatically a flag."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs at and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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