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Hits to the knees of players will continue

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The vicious looking tackle absorbed by Le'Veon Bell in the Steelers' victory over the Bengals reveals a troubling issue the league needs to look into.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

An MRI has revealed Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell suffered no structural damage to his knee after being chopped down by Bengals S Reggie Nelson after catching a pass.  This news, obviously, is terrific for both Bell and the Steelers, as the second year back avoided a potential career derailment, while the Steelers can sigh a breath of relief knowing one of their major building blocks avoided a more severe injury.

Much debate regarding the tenacity and tactfulness of Nelson's tackle has surfaced over the last 20 of so hours.  Steelers fans are furious, while Cincinnati faithful are quick to remind the Pittsburgh supporteers of questionable hits such as Hines Ward's (literally) jaw-breaking blind-side block of OLB Keith Rivers or Terrence Garvin's hit on Bengals P Kevin Huber.

Regardless of public opinion regarding the hit in question, fans on both sides would be wise to consider the changing tides of the NFL rules, meaning hits like Nelson's, unfortunately, are becoming commonplace in today's NFL.

James Harrison and Mike Tomlin were two of the more vocal proponents of the legality of Nelson's hit.  The duo weren't, however, exactly jovial when divulging their opinions on the matter.  Tomlin called the hit "not illegal" while Harrison stated "that's what guys have to do so they don't get fined."  Harrison, no stranger to league imposed fines regarding vicious tackles, seemed to be conveying a very thinly veiled reference to NFL commissionor Roger Goodell's policy.

The effects of concussions have been well documented and the ramifications of head injuries sustained during a professional football career are, to say the least, frightening.  Clearly, the league objective to reduce the number of concussions, head or neck injuries is a noble goal which indicates they have the overall well-being of the player's future in question.  When a guy is faced with a 15-yard in game penalty and then a $15,000 fine waiting in his mailbox Monday morning, he'e going to consider an alternate route of attack when attempting a tackle.

Since NFL players are, as Bobby Bouche would say, "finely tuned athletic machines", attempting a shoulder of chest level hit is a tough task.  Most defensive backs not named Kam Chancellor are smaller guys, meaning atteptimgn to wrap up a big guy high is a difficult proposition.  Earlier this season, Packers rookie S Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix vocally admitted tackling Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski up high was a painful mistake.

When a defensive player will get a penalty and a fine for going too high and possibly risk injury to himself, or having the player they are attempting to bring down break the tackle if they hit chest or waist level, what choice are they left with?

Almost any player will admit they'd prefer a head injury to a knee injury.  This rationale makes sense.  A head injury can be shaken off or hidden for an amount of time.  Even a diagnosed concussion isn't a big deal to some players, provided they are able to pass the baseline exam allowing them to be cleared to return to action.  Steelers fans will be very familiar with Sean Spence and his gruesome injury that took nearly two years to recover from.  Marcus Latimore, a highly-touted running back from the 49ers suffered a pair of devastating injuries in college, never fully recovering before ultimately retiring at age 23.  Latimore was once projected as a top-5 draft pick, and now will need to fall back on some other form of employment to get by, which could prove to be a tough task.

The NFL's hands are tied.  The rule regarding targeting and hitting a defenseless receiver, despite the typical "put a dress on them" rhetoric is a good rule.  If the NFL bans low hits, it leaves NFL defenders with almost no options for stopping opponents.  Offenses in today's NFL are more prolific than ever, in part because of the rules to protect players.  But, this doesn't mean player safety should be sacrificed in the name of more interesting games.  Bell, for all intents and purposes, avoided a devastating injury, possibly a career threatening.  He was subjected to this injury because the rules regarding hitting a player high, as honorable as they are, are too strict.

The league's heart seems to be in the right place regarding head and neck injuries.  But by placing rules that are too stringent, they are created a potentially equally unsafe environment for players.  If player safety is truly an overwhelming league interest, Goodell and Co. should look into adjusting the rules according so player's careers aren't ending after only two seasons.