Seahawks defense at center of rules emphasis
No one from the NFL or its competition committee has said publicly that the Seattle Seahawks are the reason for this year's rules emphases.
But everyone in the league knows that the Seahawks' physical, and highly effective, play in the secondary is the reason the NFL is tightly enforcing holding and illegal use of hands by defensive players in pass coverage.
And the Green Bay Packers will find out in Thursday night's NFL opener at Seattle whether the change makes a difference against the defending Super Bowl champions.
"I would never say it would hurt us," Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said with a sly smile Monday.
The way officials enforce coverage rules is no small issue, as shown by the explosion of penalties in the preseason. According to ESPN.com, the combined number of defensive penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding nearly quintupled from the 2013 preseason, from 56 such calls in 2013 to 271 this year.
If the officials enforce the rules as strictly in the regular season, it could profoundly affect the outcome of games, either because of the penalties or by softening defensive coverages.
"When it was presented to us, it was an emphasis on both sides (of interference)," said Joe Whitt, the Packers' cornerbacks coach. "It's only been emphasized really on one side (in games). And that's because Seattle played so physical and so dominant, they're trying to slow ..."
Yet, whether strict enforcement will hurt the Seahawks is open to debate. In the preseason, the Seahawks were penalized for defensive holding and illegal contact a combined three times, which tied for second fewest in the league. That's the same number they were penalized last preseason.
"I think it's going to hurt everybody equally," Whitt said. "If you look at it, I don't think (the Seahawks' starters) were penalized with contact much at all this preseason. They're coached very well. They don't do much grabbing past the bump (zone). If you try to run inside routes on them within 5 yards, they are very good. They get your hands on you and they do not let you get up the field."
Regardless of officiating, the Seahawks draft and coach to play more physically in coverage than probably any team in the league. In a league in which a 6-foot-1 cornerback is tall, the Seahawks last year had two giant starters in Richard Sherman (6-3, 195) and Brandon Browner (6-4, 221).
Sherman is back with a new, $14-million-a-year contract, but Browner left for New England in free agency. His replacement, Byron Maxwell, doesn't have exceptional height, but he's a tad taller than average (6-0¼) and very big (207) for the position.
Matt Flynn, the Packers' backup quarterback, spent 2012 with the Seahawks and saw their physical secondary in action daily.
"There's going to be a lot of contact, and our receivers have to work at beating it no matter what," Flynn said. "We're not expecting any calls."
Last year, the Seahawks had the NFL's best defense by every meaningful measure. They ranked No. 1 in fewest points and yards allowed, and their league-leading defensive passer rating (63.4) and interception total (28) were an indication of the high quality of the play of their secondary. That includes having the league's best safety tandem in Earl Thomas (five interceptions last season) and Kam Chancellor (three interceptions).
Also, Sherman (eight interceptions in '13) has become one of the premier cornerbacks in the game. With his height and length, he probably is the best cornerback in the league at defending one of the league's most difficult-to-defend option patterns: the fade and back-shoulder throws. That could neutralize one of the Packers' best weapons, because quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson are among the best back-shoulder practitioners in the league.
"(Sherman) is real smart, and he knows exactly what he is," Flynn said. "He uses his body length to his advantage, and he tries to take away the over the top ball and the back shoulder all at once. He's just a very smart guy and a very talented guy."
The Seahawks' physical play all last season was highlighted in the divisional round of the playoffs when they held the game's premier tight end, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, to one reception for 8 yards. That helped prompt the competition committee's emphasis on coverage penalties.
"People tried to change the golf course to defeat Tiger (Woods)," Whitt said. "There's no difference with their defense. They play great defense and they went out there last year and kicked people's (butts). It's a shame anything is being changed because of the way they played. They played football the way it should be played."
The question, though, is whether officials will call the contact among defensive backs and receivers as tightly as they did in the preseason. Historically, NFL officials have called points of emphasis especially tightly in the preseason to send teams a message, and then backed off when the games count in the standings.
However, the league's head of officials, Dean Blandino, has said the games will be officiated the same in the regular season.
"It will be interesting what they do come Thursday," Nelson said. "It's still a wait-and-see game, I'd say, throughout the whole season. Even after Week 1, there's going to be adjustment periods on both sides."
Whitt takes Blandino at face value.
"I think they're going to keep doing it," he said. "Especially this first game."
The Packers' defense, on the other hand, was called for 10 illegal contact and defensive holding penalties in the preseason, which was 12th most in the league.
Whitt has been teaching his cornerbacks in press coverage to put their hands on the receiver's breast plate for the first 5 yards, and then beyond only engage with their hands if the receiver does so first.
"If the receivers put their hands on the defensive players, it needs to be called," Whitt said, "just as tick tack as it's being called when the defensive players are putting his hands on the offensive players. It's not being called evenly."
In fact, the league says it is emphasizing offensive pass interference as well. There was a spike in offensive interference calls this preseason, though not as great as the coverage penalties. The offensive interference penalties in effect doubled from last preseason, from 24 to 47.
"Initially what was brought to us when the (NFL officials) came to practice, 'We're going to emphasize offensive interference, (too)," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Then when practice started all the flags started coming out, and they were all called on us. We were like, 'Oh, they had us with the okey doke.' Then you saw the preseason games."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.