PITTSBURGH -- Hall-of-Fame cornerback Mel Blount and safety Donnie Shell were among the NFL's biggest hitters in their heyday, but both realize that their style of play likely would draw heavy fines nowadays.
The two joined a group of about two dozen former Pittsburgh Steelers players who took part in an alumni photo session prior to the team's game against the Chicago Bears Sunday night at Heinz Field.
"I think they're trying to protect the players, the safety of the players," Shell said. "Some calls are questionable, I think, and some are not. But you have to be taught to tackle the right way, and they're trying to protect the players. So, they're trying to do a good thing, and you can't complain about that.
"But it seems like there's more thinking out there, trying to get it right. I saw a defensive guy recently try to hit a guy with his shoulder, so he turned to do it and injured his neck. Normally, he probably would have just drilled the guy, and everything would have been all right. I think you just have to go out there and play the way you've been taught to play and let the officials make the calls."
What? That's coming from a long-time headhunter. What about Blount, the most-physical cornerback in his day, a guy who still looks like he could cover an opponent's top receiver?
"When I watch a game today, I'm just like any other fan. I'm waiting to see what the call is after the play and what the explanation is, because the game is changing. It's evolving, and it's always been evolving. So, to enjoy the game, you need to enjoy the evolution of it."
Are you OK with that, Mel? Seriously? You used to take guys heads off when you were roaming NFL secondaries.
"Well, it doesn't really make a difference, because the train has already left the station,'' Blount said. "You just have to deal with it the way it is. So, you have to enjoy what you see is happening, because complaining won't help one bit. There's one thing about athletes that I've noticed over the years.
"They can adapt to just about anything, and if you don't adapt you'll get fined or suspended or maybe be out of the league because you can't cut it. So, you have to adjust and adapt. That's the big thing, the way things are going and the way they're calling it, you need to take it for what it's worth."
Wait a minute. Didn't you guys play with Jack Lambert, the guy who said you might as well just put a skirt on quarterbacks? If he were here, you'd be singing a different tune, right?
"I don't know about that," Shell said. "Without question, it's tougher for a defensive player, especially in the secondary. You almost have to let the receiver catch the ball and make a so-called football move before you tackle him or you're hitting a defenseless receiver. That takes away some of the aggressiveness from the defensive side of it. For sure, it's a fine line.
"They're trying to get it right, but there are still calls that are not right. They called a guy today for hitting with his helmet, but no helmet was involved. The hit was by a guy's shoulder into the other guy's shoulder. No helmet was involved, but that's what they called, because the running back ducked his head and it looked bad. It's a tough call on both sides.
"Seriously, though, I like the old style," Shell added. "You know that, and I'm more than sure that Mel will back me up. You're thinking more about what you have to do, and on the defensive side you have to react to what you see. If you think about it first, you'll be too late. You have to read and react to be a good defensive player. You have to go on instincts out there."
Blount, the master of the bump-and-run, had to adapt when that rule changed.
"Sure, I agree with Donnie, the old style was better,'' Blount said. "But when they changed the bump-and-run rule in 1977, we all had to adjust. If you're an athlete, a player, you make the adjustment. You know what the rules are. You play within the rules, and you let your ability take you to whatever it can take you to. That's what has to happen with athletes today.
"There are so many things driving rule changes. Player health, the concussion issues, and for the entertainment value it's a lot tougher to play defense. Everybody wants to see a lot of scoring, but I think defenses will catch up. They always have, and they always will. But right now, they're a little bit behind. I think it takes away the aggressiveness of the defensive player.
"The players are moving at such a fast rate of speed," Blount added. "It's an issue, without a doubt, but the great athletes will make the adjustments. But I have faith in NFL defenses. They might be behind for a while, but when they catch up look out. So, I think it's an issue right now, but four years from now we'll be talking about something else. I'm sure of that."
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