Sack king Chandler Jones doesn't know how to hit QBs under new rules

Chandler Jones led the NFL in sacks last season and already has four in 2018, but says it hasn't been easy working around the new rules. Ralph Freso/Getty Images

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Chandler Jones knows a thing or 68 about sacking the quarterback.

Jones, the Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowl pass-rusher, has recorded that many sacks since entering the league in 2012 as the New England Patriots' first-round draft pick. Only two other players -- Houston's J.J. Watt and Denver's Von Miller -- have more over that stretch.

But Jones, who earned a five-year contract worth $82.5 million in March 2017 because of his ability to rush the passer, doesn't know what to do anymore when he hits a quarterback, because of the NFL's increased focus on protecting QBs and punishing those who, referees think, rough the passer.

"There's about 150 different angles you can come and hit the quarterback from," he said. "If I'm in front of him, now what do I do? If I'm coming from his left, what do I do? If I'm coming from his right? If he's running, now what do I do?"

Jones, like a lot of defenders across the NFL, has asked for clarification. The league provided some following 34 roughing-the-passer penalties in the first three weeks of the season, issuing guidelines through video of what's a legal hit on a quarterback and what's not.

Even still, it leaves Jones unsure.

"I've already envisioned what I would try to do if I had a clear shot at the quarterback," Jones said. "I think that pushing him or trying to slam him into the ground without laying on him [would work]. But I have to get him down, because if I try to go push him and he stays up -- all right, is that a sack or does he get to extend the play?

"It's a lot to think about, especially if you beat a guy free and you're approaching the quarterback and you're just like, 'OK, now what do I do?' That's the gray area I want to get rid of."

Through five games, he has done all right. He has four sacks and no roughing-the-passer penalties.

Not everyone else on the Cardinals defense has been as fortunate.

Safety Antoine Bethea was flagged for roughing the passer in Week 2. Defensive end Markus Golden and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche each were flagged in Week 3. The Cardinals are among six teams that have three roughing-the-passer penalties this season, the third-most in the NFL.

Defensive end Benson Mayowa wasn't flagged for a hit on Rams quarterback Jared Goff in Week 2, but he was still fined $20,054 for it.

Golden said he doesn't think about how to bring the quarterback down when he's in the heat of a pursuit, but he has had to change how he brings him down to not get fined. And he's seeing other players be more cautious as they approach quarterbacks.

"As you get there, you kind of try to figure out a way at least to attack the ball or try to hit him where you ain't going to land on him a little bit but not too much," Golden said.

The Cardinals have started coaching their defenders to aim for the ball instead of the quarterback. Stripping the quarterback still counts as a sack, and it takes the potential for a penalty and a fine out of the equation, defensive coordinator Al Holcomb said.

Both Holcomb and coach Steve Wilks show clips weekly of how illegal hits are affecting games as well as examples of how other defenders around the league are doing it right.

While there's a general feeling around the Arizona defense of disdain for the league's new approach to protecting quarterbacks even more, some defenders understand it.

The quarterbacks are a "big-money position," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. Owners, he continued, don't want to see their investments "getting crushed." Golden even flipped the script for a moment, saying he wouldn't want to see prized Arizona quarterback Josh Rosen get hurt.

But that still doesn't mean defenders have to agree with or like the league's rule.

"It's making it even softer," Mayowa said.

Peters made a point that is being echoed by many of the league's interior defensive lineman. He weighs 305 pounds, so when he gets a shot at sacking the quarterback -- and he pointed out it doesn't happen often -- it's usually not a clean shot. He's typically being pushed from one direction or another, so contorting his body to avoid landing on a quarterback isn't just hard -- sometimes it's impossible. Then Peters mentioned Miami Dolphins defensive end William Hayes, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 3 trying to avoid landing on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after sacking him.

"Whenever they institute new rules, there's always going to be unintended consequences," Peters said. "But it's football at the end of the day."

Even Arizona's cornerbacks don't know how they can blitz off the edge and slow down.

Patrick Peterson called it "very difficult." Bene Benwikere is still trying to figure out how to be aggressive without being "overly aggressive."

For the Cardinals, Benwikere said, the sack has changed from bringing down the quarterback to stripping him.

Even so, some Cardinals won't change how they rush and hit the passer.

"Not me," Benwikere said. "I'm coming to tackle the quarterback. That's my first and foremost goal."

Said Mayowa: "I haven't changed anything. I'm not going to change anything. I'm going to try my best to not make it look intentional or whatever they're trying to say. But, I don't know, that rule. They need to get rid of that rule."