Matt Barrows tweeted out last night that Nate Clements will not be fined for his helmet-to-helmet hit on 49ers QB Alex Smith last week. The 49ers ran a designed play-action QB keeper that saw Nate Clements lead with his helmet as he tackled Smith.
Initially I suspected some kind of fine was in the offing, but former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira tweeted out that helmet to helmet is only illegal against 8 defenseless players. I don't have a list of defenseless players in front of me but I believe it includes receivers coming down with passes, offensive players in certain positions following turnovers, and QBs in the pocket, among others. When Smith left the pocket he went from QB to runner, which removed the protection.
In the discussion surrounding penalties, some have commented that the game is turning into two-hand touch and the excessive number of rules hurts the flow of the game. An example of this could be seen when Madieu Williams held up on a possible big hit against the Cowboys that let the Dallas receiver score. I believe it was Miles Austin who came down with a pass and if Williams had lit him up to make the stop he might have been fined. Even though he could have made more of a basic tackle to make the stop, the defenseless players rule might have caused him to think twice and miss out on the tackle.
In considering the Clements hit on Smith, it seems like this does fall within the framework of the rules. And considering the complaints of football getting softer, this might simply be a case of having to live with a perfectly legitimate, but scary looking hit.