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With attention on rule, helmet flags up 800%

NFL officials threw nine flags to enforce the helmet rule in Week 1, an 800% increase from the first week of the 2018 season and an early sign the league will follow through on a promise to penalize infractions more strictly in 2019.

The helmet rule is one of two points of emphasis for the NFL this season. The other is offensive holding, for which officials threw 82 flags in Week 1 -- a 32% increase over the Week 1 output in 2018.

But the spike in flags for the helmet rule, which prohibits players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact with an opponent, was just as significant.

The rule went largely unenforced after being introduced as part of a league-wide effort to reduce concussion numbers.

There was only one flag for it in Week 1 of 2018 and a total of 18 for the season, but the league also issued 28 fines and sent 139 warning letters to players who had committed fouls that went uncalled during games.

League leaders said players needed time to adjust to what had become a common technique; they also knew that this type of illegal contact can be difficult for officials to see from start to finish in live action.

But the league wants the foul enforced more consistently in 2019, which officials signaled by throwing 24 flags in 65 preseason games. Each penalty carries a 15-yard mark-off. Enforcement has continued to be heavily skewed toward defensive players.

Only one of the nine flags thrown in Week 1 was on an offensive player: Dallas Cowboys tailback Tony Pollard. Last season, the only offensive player to be penalized for it was Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.