Suspensions will be in place for this weekend's games and could be handed out for hits that took place last Sunday.
The league's announcement Tuesday comes one day after vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press such penalties could be forthcoming. In the past, players were either fined or ejected for illegal hits. But after the series of recent flagrant tackles, several of which resulted in concussions, the NFL ratcheted up the punishment.
"There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits," Anderson said Monday in a phone interview. "Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension.
"There are folks that understand that football is a physical game. Part of the enjoyment is that some of the violence is appealing. That has to be violence within the rules. There are very specific rules for that."
On Sunday, several hits may have gone beyond those bounds:
The Eagles' DeSean Jackson and the Falcons' Dunta Robinson were knocked out of their game after a frightening collision in which Robinson launched himself head first to make a tackle. Both sustained concussions.
Ravens tight end Todd Heap took a vicious hit from Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather that Heap called "one of those hits that shouldn't happen."
The Steelers' James Harrison sidelined two Browns players with head injuries after jarring hits. An NFL spokesman said one of the tackles, on Joshua Cribbs, was legal. The Browns were more upset about Harrison's hit on Mohamed Massaquoi, which the league is reviewing.
Not only is the league worried about defenders turning themselves into human missiles, but also with them aiming for the head with the forearm, shoulder or any other body part.
"We're certainly concerned," said Anderson, a member of the league's competition committee and one of its loudest voices on the need for enhanced player safety. "The fundamentally old way of wrapping up and tackling seems to have faded away. A lot of the increase is from hits to blow guys up. That has become a more popular way of doing it.
"Yes, we are concerned they are getting away from the fundamentals of tackling, and maybe it has been coached that way. We're going to have to look into talking to our coaches."
One of those coaches, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, contacted the league about the hit on Heap.
"The thing we try to coach our players to do is basically hit in the strike zone," Harbaugh said. "Try to make an effort to do that and keep your head out of it. It's not just the safety of your opponent, it's safety for yourself. When you throw your head in there like that you put yourself at risk. It's just not good football."
It's also a part of the game the league has outlawed. As far back as 2007, NFL officials were told to eject players for such flagrant fouls. The NFL said Monday that 17 players have been ejected since 2007. The AP accounted for 14 of those ejections: nine for throwing a punch or fighting, two for contact with officials, two that fall into the category of helmet hits, and one for head-butting.
There have been occasional suspensions in recent years, including safety Roy Williams, then with Dallas, for one game in 2007 for three horse-collar tackles during that season. Tampa Bay cornerback Elbert Mack and New York Jets safety Eric Smith each drew one-game suspensions for "flagrant violations of player safety rules" by launching themselves into an opponent helmet first.
Last season, Carolina defensive back Dante Wesley drew a one-game penalty for launching himself into a punt returner who had not caught the ball and was in a defenseless position.
Retired safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst for NBC, was adamant about the need for stiff, swift punishment. He was fined more than $200,000 during his career and suspended for one game in 2002 for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
"You didn't get my attention when you fined me 5 grand, 10 grand, 15 grand," he said during the pregame broadcast for "Sunday Night Football." "You got my attention when I got suspended and I had to get away from my teammates and I disappointed my teammates from not being there. But you have to suspend these guys. These guys are making millions of dollars."
Tony Dungy, the former coach and Harrison's broadcast partner, echoed his sentiments - something that wasn't lost on Anderson.
"When someone as respected as Tony Dungy and a player respected for his play and known for his hitting prowess such as Rodney Harrison say that, in fact, fines do not have a deterrent effect and that suspensions might, it is sobering," he said.
Anderson said the league would contact the players union about any changes in disciplining such hits, but he didn't expect any opposition.
"Obviously suspensions would be a much bigger deal than fining guys," said Colts center Jeff Saturday, the team's player representative. "But if guys are headhunting out there to knock a guy out of the game, that's the only way to take care of it."
Defensive players don't necessarily have the same outlook. Indeed, James Harrison vehemently defended his hits.
"If I get fined for that, it's going to be a travesty," Harrison said. "They didn't call (a penalty) on that. There's no way I could be fined for that. It was a good, clean, legit hit. ... I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it's a perfect tackle."
Meanwhile, as more is learned about the long-term damage of head trauma and the NFL puts increased emphasis on preventing concussions,.
"The truth is, the announcers set the tone for what's good sportsmanship and what's bad sportsmanship," said Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestling star and football player at Harvard who is now president of the Sports Legacy Institute, which promotes the study, treatment and prevention of brain trauma in athletes.
"It's not a requirement for their job to understand the concussion problem," Nowinski said. "But the responsibility the announcers have, the reach they have to shape the future of the game, is so big."
Time was, a hit that knocked a player out would get rave reviews and few cared whether it was legal or not. Guys who stayed in the game when they couldn't even tell you their names were hailed as warriors.