Legal hit by Niners' Whitner on Saints' Thomas

By BARRY WILNER | January 15, 2012 | 2:57 PM EST

San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner, right, is called for pass interference while defending New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham during the first quarter of an NFL divisional playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The helmet-to-helmet hit by San Francisco safety Donte Whitner that sent Saints running back Pierre Thomas to the locker room early in Saturday's NFC playoff game was legal.

Whitner was not penalized because the tackle was not against a defenseless player. Helmet-to-helmet hits are outlawed against eight categories considered defenseless players, and a runner is not one of those categories.

Thomas was considered a runner because he'd made a catch, turned and made a "football move" before being hit.

The competition committee that recommends rules changes could examine such hits in the offseason.

NFL spokesman Michael Signora said Sunday the "committee always closely studies and analyzes anything having to do with player safety."