August 29, 2023
Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett suffered two concussions during his rookie season, but he is hoping some new technology and a new helmet will reduce the chances of another head injury during the 2023 season.
Pickett will be wearing the VICIS Matrix QB helmet, which this year was graded as the safest quarterback helmet in the NFL and NFLPA’s joint laboratory testing results.
The NFL saw an increase in concussions during the 2022 season, and there were a number of high-profile injuries to quarterbacks. Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a series of concussions, with each drawing more attention to NFL head injuries.
Tagovailoa lying prone on the field, in the fencing position, at Paul Brown Stadium is one of the lasting images of the 2022 season. That was his second head injury in as many weeks. When he suffered his third suspected concussion on Dec. 26, his season was over.
Pickett suffered his two concussions in an eight-game span. His first came in mid-October in his second NFL start against the Buccaneers. He did not finish that game, but he was cleared from league concussion protocols to start the next week against the Dolphins.
Pickett’s second concussion came in the second week of December in a home loss to the Ravens. He did not finish that game and also missed the next week’s game in Carolina. On both occasions, Pickett’s head struck the ground after he was tackled.
“The worst hits are from the ground and not actually getting hit by a player,” Pickett said. “Now that I have a little better protection from the ground, I feel a little better about it.”
The new technology involved in the VICIS Matrix could help quarterback concussions decrease. For the first time this season, quarterbacks have access to helmets that are specifically designed for the position.
Whereas linemen are more likely to suffer concussions in helmet-to-helmet collisions, quarterbacks are more likely to be concussed when their heads hit the ground. The VICIS Matrix is designed to reduce impact at the back of the head.
Engineers discovered mechanical polymers that bend on impact are better than the foam products inside many helmets. Additionally, Jason Neubauer, the VP of product development at VICIS, said Pickett’s head was scanned and fitted for his helmet, giving an added layer of protection.
“The last half-inch of the inside of the helmet matches his specific head,” Neubauer said.
The NFL has been proactive about player safety since settling a lawsuit brought by former players for $765 million in 2013. New helmets hit the market every year aimed at improving player safety and reducing the risks of concussions.
The first position-specific helmets were produced and used by linemen last season. About half of the league’s players are linemen, and they’re highly susceptible to head trauma because they’re colliding with opponents on almost every play. The VICIS Zero2 Matrix ID Trench and the VICIS Matrix Trench were rated this year as the two safest helmets by the NFL/NFLPA study.
The helmet manufacturers then turned their attention to helmets for quarterbacks, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the league. The optics involved in the Tagovailoa injuries were bad, as the NFLPA called into question the handling of the injuries and the NFL’s return to play protocols.
For Pickett, it was as simple as taking a recommendation from Steelers equipment manager Adam Regan. Every spring, NFL equipment managers receive the helmet laboratory testing performance results from the NFL and NFLPA. They order helmets in the spring based off the safety data. Players are shown the results and then choose a new helmet or decide to remain in the one they have. Pickett welcomed a switch after using two different helmets during his rookie season.
Professional athletes take pride in training their bodies in hopes of remaining injury-free, but there are no exercises to protect against head injuries.
“You can’t really protect yourself when you go to the ground,” Pickett said. “The whiplash to the ground for quarterbacks is more than it is for other positions.”
The NFL released data in February on the increase in concussions last season. There were 149 diagnosed concussions in 271 regular season games in 2022. That’s an 18% jump from 2021. In addition to the new helmet technology, the league is taking further steps to help protect players against head injuries.
Guardian caps, the protective devices worn on top of helmets in training camp practices the past two years, will be mandatory for linemen, linebackers and running backs in all padded practices during the 2023 regular season. They were optional for players last year during the regular season.
The NFL is making Guardian caps mandatory in padded practices for some positions because the league saw a decrease in training camp concussions last year when players wore them. The league recorded 25 concussions in camp practices last year, which represented an eight-year low.
Steelers guard James Daniels opted to wear his Guardian cap during regular season practices last year and said he hopes “that time is coming soon” when the NFL will mandate the caps be worn in games.
The league currently is not allowing players to wear Guardian caps during games, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
In a conference call with NFL reporters last week, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, said there is hope the Guardian cap technology will soon be incorporated in helmets.
“What I do think, ultimately, over the next two, or three, or five years is that some of the improvements made to overall helmets will incorporate some benefits of the Guardian cap,” Miller said. “In other words, the offensive lineman-specific helmet will probably — probably — have the same benefit to a player as wearing a regular helmet as a Guardian cap would. And so you may not need a Guardian cap. Or, another add-on — which I don’t contemplate right now — for the Guardian cap itself, is it will evolve in such a way that it will mitigate even more of the forces without any detrimental impact. Because that’s part of the equation here, too.
“I was really excited by the benefit that we saw from Guardian caps this past year, but we were interested in studying the heat, interested in studying the neck forces and potential stingers, interested in getting the player feedback — as we are this year with the modified Guardian cap — before we make any informed decisions with the players’ association about what happens next. I do think, to answer the question, the technology will continue to evolve — I think relatively quickly — and I think with player feedback last year and this year on the Guardian cap, we’ll be able to make more informed decisions about what the future of it looks like.”