NFL football operations executive Ray Anderson told ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike in the Morning" that the league will hold players accountable under a "strict liability" standard for illegal hits to the head and neck starting with games this week, saying the league will not apologize for trying to protect players' safety.
The NFL will immediately begin suspending players for dangerous and flagrant hits, particularly those involving helmets.
"We are trying to get our players to not initiate contact on defenseless players including defenseless receivers to the head or neck area with the forearm the shoulder or the helmet. We're trying to get that out of the game," Anderson told "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on Tuesday. "We're trying to protect everybody in defenseless positions from head and neck injuries."
Anderson also said the league is looking to set an example for the lower levels of the game, from college to youth football, by emphasizing safe play. He said there's no intent to change the rules -- specifically, Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8 -- but that the league will enforce its current rules more strictly.
Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations, backed away from the word "devastating" in describing the kind of hits the league will act upon beginning with games this week.
On Monday, Anderson said "We've got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability. We have to dispel the notion that you get one free pass in these egregious or flagrant shots."
But Tuesday on "Mike and Mike," he said "I don't know where the word devastating came from. That's not my word. What I would tell you is that if there are flagrant and egregious violations of our current rules, we will be enforcing, effective immediately, discipline at a higher level."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello clarified the policy further on Tuesday, saying: "Some of those hits Sunday were devastating but the rules already account for devastating hits. What we're focused on is stricter enforcement of the existing rules and elevated levels [of] discipline."
Anderson stressed that the league's increased attention and discipline on head shots is based on current rules protecting "defenseless" players -- for example, a wide receiver or punt returner making a catch, or a defender prone to a blindside hit on an interception return. Those rules have already been a point of emphasis for game officials this season, he said.
"You should know the rules," Anderson said. "If you're in violation of those rules we're going to hold you to a higher standard."
He said that players should be able to adjust their technique to the rules and avoid illegal hits.
The defender, Anderson said, "has to adjust his target area. He has to wrap up. He has to do things more fundamentally."
"With the seriousness of head and neck trauma and concussions generally ... we've got a responsibility to make sure players understand" that they need to adapt to the rules, he said.
Asked if that might lead defenders to attack low rather than high, increasing the risk of leg and knee injuries, Anderson said the league does want to avoid unintended consequences, but must weigh a player's career against the long-term health effects of concussions.
"Hits to the head can be life-altering, not just career-altering," he said.
Asked about specific hits from Sunday, Anderson said Falcons defender Dunta Robinson's hit on Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson and Patriots defender Brandon Meriweather's hit on Ravens tight end Todd Heap were hits that highlight the league's concerns.
Asked about Meriweather's hit on Heap, he said: "That, in our view, is something that was flagrant, it was egregious and effective immediately that's going to be looked at a very aggressive level which could include suspension without pay."
It might not have been egregious enough to merit suspension, however. A source told ESPNBoston.com that Meriweather will be fined $50,000 for hits on Heap but will not be suspended.
Of Robinson's hit on Jackson, Anderson said that although it was a split-second play, the rules are the rules and they will be enforced.
"Yes, it was a bang-bang play, but that the end of the day it was still illegal under the rules, a current rule," he said.
Harrison's hit on Cribbs' teammate Mohamed Massaquoi, however, is being reviewed by the league.
Anderson said the NFL wants to set an example for the rest of football in protecting player safety.
"Let me add that we understand this is not just about the NFL. This is about safety at our level, at the college level, at the high school level, at the peewee level," he said. "Because we are the standard-bearer and we are committed to safety at the highest level.
"So we will take all the criticism and all the backlash," Anderson added. "We're not going to be apologetic, we're not going to be defensive about it. We are going to protect our players and hopefully players at the lower levels as well by example."
Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and The Associated Press was used in this report.