Physical, No More

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants

Reality has set in here at the NovaCare that the emphasis on illegal contact and similar infractions this year is going to significantly impact how the game is played.

Maybe it was the 43 penalties that were enforced during their first two preseason games. Maybe it took a steamed Chip Kelly to drive the point home postgame in New England. However it happened, the issue has their full attention.

The defensive backs were working on their revised techniques during the portion of practice open to the media Monday. It looked different. Not that illegal contact is ever taught, but the defensive backs were careful to steer clear of the receiver’s body after the initial jam. They kept their hands to themselves.

“Once the receiver is beyond five yards, you can’t reach your arm out and even graze him,” said Billy Davis. “That’s what they’re calling.”

Pro Football Talk notes that the last time the NFL put an emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding, those penalties climbed from 79 in the entire 2003 regular season to 191 in 2004. As noted in Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column, there was an average of 12 penalties per game last season. In the first two preseason games, that number sits at about 20 penalties per game. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino threw cold water on the notion that refs will keep the flag in their pocket more when the regular season begins. 

“We’re not going to change how we’re calling the games once the regular season starts,’’ Blandino told The MMQB.

“I don’t know if we’ve all realized the full effect of the way they’re calling it,” said Pat Shurmur. “We’re all getting used to the new way that the officials are emphasizing the bumping down field.”

While teams have known about the rule emphasis for some time, the degree to which it will be enforced wasn’t really clear until the refs stopped by training camp this summer. And as Nolan Carroll pointed out, defensive backs couldn’t really work on their technique before then anyway because bump and run is not permitted during the spring. So you have a bunch of players around the league adjusting on the fly.

“Refs would always come to us before the game and tell us what he’s looking for and  where to keep your hands and if you had too much contact down the field and the ball wasn’t coming to you he would at least warn you,” said Carroll. “Now they’re just throwing the flag, man.

“I think every receiver has an advantage. I could go ahead and play receiver if they are going to do all that. I could at least be decent just because the rules are so sensitive right now, anybody can really play that position. As long as you can catch the ball, you can get away with it.”

This development could impact physical corners in particular. The Seahawks, for instance, benefitted greatly from the refs’ leniency last year. Now (perhaps partly because of Seattle’s success on defense) DBs won’t be able to use their muscle as much. Big people beat up little people, but what happens when the big people aren’t allowed to swing beyond five yards? This is a question that faces the Eagles’ corners, who are built for a more thumping brand of ball.

“Even though I like to get my hands on receivers, however I feel about that I know how the refs are going to be calling the games and we have to abide by the rules,” said Bradley Fletcher. “We have to play by them or we’re going to get flagged all the way down the field.”

Added Cary Williams: “You have to work those things day in and day out … whether it’s hand placement, whether it’s eyes, whether it’s footwork or knowledge in the defense and where your help is, and what leverage you need to be at. Every play counts, every down counts, so you want to be as aggressive as possible, but you want to do it within the rules.”

What’s bad for the defense is good for the offense. The refs are allegedly going to be on the lookout for illegal contact from the receivers as well (“No extension [of the arm], that’s our big thing,” said Riley Cooper. “We just can’t extend.”)  but there’s little doubt which side of the ball will gain the most from this.

Skilled tight ends should really reap the benefits considering they typically draw linebackers and safeties, who often rely on physical play in coverage. All the more reason to think Zach Ertz is on target for a hefty bump in production.

“It’s going to be tough for defenders,” said Ertz. “A lot of them grab — especially linebackers. They’re not as comfortable playing in the passing game so it’s going to be tough for them. They have to adjust, but it’s definitely an advantage for the offense.”

And who benefits on the outside?

“Big, fast guys benefit from everything, I think,” said Shurmur. “But anytime you can’t grab a guy, I think maybe guys that are less physical don’t have to worry about playing with somebody hanging all over them down the field.”

Like DeSean Jackson, for instance.

Small receivers, big receivers, tight ends, et al. Production and points and yes, flags, will be up. Defenders — and in particular, physical corners that are used to playing a certain way — must evolve, and fast.

“Guys are so focused on getting the right hand placement that they are not playing at a fast level. That’s what we’re trying to get back to, is to playing where it’s just natural and it’s not something that you have to think about,” said Carroll. “It’s just another bump in the road for us again. Our backs are against the wall but that’s how it is on defense, man.”