Hands off! DBs must retool strategies
Jeffri Chadiha [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
August 12, 2014
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ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Before Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith ever opened his mouth, his eyes darted to his left to find a pair of shoulder pads, discarded by receiver Dwayne Bowe, crashing into a nearby equipment cart. Smith thought he was taking time after a recent training camp practice to talk to a reporter about the league's latest hot topic -- the new emphasis officials are placing on defensive holding and illegal contact -- but he quickly became part of an improvised skit engineered by Bowe.

As Smith curiously watched his teammate, Bowe struck the stereotypical journalist pose: right hand clutching a fake microphone, left hand rubbing his chin, his eyes burrowing in on Smith in hopes of detecting the truth. Finally, Bowe asked the question that summarized what every NFL receiver must be thinking these days: "So you know you can't put your hands on me anymore, right?"

Smith tried to muster a clever response. He said Bowe was so good it didn't matter if the league created even more advantages for offensive players. All that did was encourage Bowe to deliver more one-liners, to tease Smith a little longer, to drive home the point that he was living on the right side of the NFL's perceived line of fair play. What Bowe seemed to be saying was that receivers are about to have a lot more fun on game days. Defensive backs, on the other hand, had better get ready for a much tougher job when it comes to defending the pass.

This is the logical consequence of the league's openly stated approach to governing pass defense these days. When training camps opened in late July, word trickled out that officials had been instructed to crack down on defensive holding and illegal contact. The belief was that those penalties had been called so seldom in recent years that it was time to return the NFL to its rightful nature. In other words, a league that already has slanted the game toward offense -- most notably by fining and suspending defenders for hitting defenseless receivers -- apparently thinks it's essential to make it even easier to throw the football.

Critics of this edict point to the Seattle Seahawks' 43-8 win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII as evidence of what the league doesn't want to see. Denver came into that contest fielding the most prolific passing offense in NFL history and left dazed and confused after being manhandled by a dominant defense and physical secondary.

"The game is definitely more exciting when the football is flying around, and I don't know if some people liked seeing [what happened in the Super Bowl]," said Smith, a sixth-year veteran who is fighting to reclaim his starting job from last season. "But it will be really interesting to see what happens once the season begins. A lot of people have a hard time with change."

Said longtime NFL referee Ed Hochuli, "The players will get it. They understand the rule changes, and they adjust. I know that the players always test us to see if we really mean it, and how far the rule is going to go. ... I would expect that there may be more fouls in the first preseason [game] than will be called in the first regular-season game because the players will have adjusted to it."

Teams already are learning how seriously officials are taking their marching orders. When the Green Bay Packers had an officiating crew in to monitor their practices in training camp recently, Hochuli said flags were thrown on the first 10 plays of a one-on-one drill between receivers and defensive backs. Most people interviewed for this story wonder whether the early-season games will produce a similar sight. The league is filled with so many talented quarterbacks and athletic receivers that holding, tugging and yanking on jerseys had become acceptable methods of defending the pass.

To understand how much the landscape had changed over the past decade, consider this: Officials called illegal contact -- which means defenders can't legally touch receivers more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage -- only 38 times last season. Heading into the 2004 season, when the league also stressed enforcing this rule more frequently, that number spiked to 130. That means a lot of defensive backs have cultivated habits that need to change quickly, and their coaches already are training them in unique ways.

For example, the St. Louis Rams have told their defensive backs to hold tennis balls in their hands while covering receivers in portions of practice. Once the quarterback attempts a pass, they can drop the balls and make a play. The Cleveland Browns have gone a step further, as their defensive backs have been wearing kickboxing gloves to eliminate the temptation to grab. Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden missed an interception in one practice because his fingers weren't free to catch the ball.

The response to this new emphasis predictably has been strong on both sides around the league. Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones said, "This helps us tremendously, man. Because of the speed and the size we have here with the Falcons -- and there are a lot of receivers in the league, as well, that have great speed and size -- it's going to help us out because those guys hold us."

Naturally, defensive players see it differently. Even though there will be greater emphasis on calling offensive pass interference, too, defenders realize they're competing in a league that last season saw several offensive records set, including average passer rating (86.0), combined passing yards per game (471.2) and total passing touchdowns (804). When asked how cornerbacks will contend with Detroit's 6-foot-5, 236-pound Calvin Johnson, Cincinnati's 6-4, 207-pound A.J. Green or Chicago's 6-4, 230-pound Brandon Marshall without the benefit of a savvy hold or nudge, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio jokingly said, "You mean, how do you defend players who already are impossible to defend? That's a great question."

Said Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, "As a cornerback, you've just got to be more of a technician when it comes down to playing. If you hold too long, you know they're going to call it."

That reality is going to be even harder to accept for teams that rely on a high-pressure attack to fuel their defense. The Seahawks, Jets, Browns and Chiefs are just a few of the squads that rely on physical cornerbacks who can rough up receivers at the line of scrimmage. "We have two great edge rushers [outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali], so if I can hold a receiver for just a second, then the quarterback has to look the other way," said 6-3, 218-pound Smith. "If the other cornerback is doing his job, then the quarterback is going down. It used to be that you could square a guy up and get a little nudge in. That's over."

Indeed it is over. So far this preseason,  in 17 games, there have...
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