TAMPA — When the Buccaneers made Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson their primary target in free agency last spring, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time stressing about his penchant for drawing personal foul penalties.
Well, they are certainly stressing now.
Goldson was suspended for one game without pay by the NFL on Monday for violating player safety rules. In Sunday;s 16-14 loss to New Orleans, Goldson was penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit on running back Darren Sproles, his second such violation in as many games.
Goldson has been called for a league-leading 15 personal fouls since the start of the 2010 season, and the league said his history of such hits played a factor in its decision to levy the suspension.
“You had an unobstructed path to your opponent (running back Darren Sproles),” NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks wrote in a letter to Goldson informing him of the suspension.
“It is clear that you lowered your head and unnecessarily rammed the left side of your helmet into the left side of your opponent’s head. You delivered a forceful blow with your helmet and made no attempt whatsoever to wrap up your opponent or make a conventional tackle on the play. This illegal contact clearly could have been avoided.”
Goldson was fined $30,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland during the Bucs’ season-opening loss at MetLife Stadium two weeks ago. His hit on Sproles will be far more costly.
Goldson, a two-time Pro Bowler who signed a five-year, $41.25-million contract when he joined the Bucs in March as part of their revamped backfield, will forfeit $264,705 in salary as part of the suspension.
Goldson was not available for comment Monday, but Bucs coach Greg Schiano said prior to the announcement of the suspension that Goldson is well aware of the risk he’s taking with his style of play and is working to correct it.
“He just has to lower his target point,’’ Schiano said. “Sometimes the point moves while you’re going to hit, so that means you even have to go lower still. He certainly is trying. It’s not one of those, ‘Oh I don’t care, I’m just going to do it.’ He’s very aware and trying.’’
There was no word Monday on whether Goldson will appeal the suspension. Barring an appeal, the Bucs will face the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady without one of their one of their top defenders.
The timing couldn’t be much worse.
The suspension comes just as Tampa Bay was gaining its footing on pass defense, where it ranked last in the 32-team league a year ago. The Bucs were a more respectable 15th overall heading into Monday night’s game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
The Bucs’ concern, though, stretches beyond the loss of Goldson.
Of the league-leading 23 times the Bucs have been penalized so far, six were personal fouls, including five for helmet-to-helmet hits. And there is little doubt their lack of discipline is costing them.
A personal foul helped set up the Jets’ winning field goal on Sept. 8 and extended a touchdown drive earlier in the game. And while none of the three personal fouls the Bucs were called for on Sunday led to points for New Orleans, they did extend Saints’ possessions.
That allowed New Orleans to run 70 offensive plays to 56 for the Bucs. That difference, Schiano admitted, might have been the difference in the game.
“You usually get 65 to 70 (offensive) plays in a football game and yesterday it was (56) or whatever it was we got,’’ Schiano said. “But five or six of those plays are what you make your hay on.’’
Even amid their 56 plays, the Bucs had plenty of chances to make hay. They failed on several occasions, though, because of a continued lack of discipline on offense. After being penalized six times for pre-snap mistakes against the Jets, the Bucs were flagged four more times for similar self-inflicted errors against the Saints, including one that took points off the board.
Midway through the third quarter, the Bucs’ second illegal formation penalty of the day wiped out a 73-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman to Vincent Jackson.
“It doesn’t matter if I agree with them, because they called them,’’ said Schiano, whose team ranks second in the league with 10 pre-snap penalties. “We just have to make sure we’re in compliance with the rules.’’
Schiano will continue to coach his players in a way that should result in a reduction of personal foul penalties. More coaching might not solve the problem, though.
“We’ve all talked about it and everyone knows the rules and everything, but it’s football,’’ middle linebacker Mason Foster said. “No one is trying to hurt anybody or hit them in the head, but it’s part of football.’’
Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy explained just how much a part of football it is and why it’s so hard for players, especially at this level, to avoid such contact.
“If a guy is going to get hit, naturally he’s going to cradle, that’s human nature,’’ McCoy said. “So, if I’m 6-foot-5 and the other guy is 5-8 and he cradles and I’m (aiming) for his chest, what am I going to hit? His helmet.
“It just happens. Nobody is intentionally trying to hit someone like that. So, they’re going to call what they’re going to call, and we just have to keep playing fast. We can’t let it slow us down.’’
The enalties, though inadvertently, are slowing the Bucs down. Their 220 penalty yards are the most in the league, 14 yards more than San Francisco.
But Schiano is convinced the problem will be short lived.
“I am frustrated by the 26 penalties we’ve had called against us these two games,’’ said Schiano, including times opponents declined called penalties. “We should go three or four games with 26 penalties. But that hasn’t been the case, so what’s changed?
“That’s what I have to find out and get fixed. So no, I don’t think it’s going to be an ongoing problem. I don’t. It will get fixed. We have a good football team here and we will win.’’