When a small crew of officials visited the Chiefs at training camp a little over a week ago, they were sure to thoroughly review the rules against defensive holding and illegal contact, both of which will be a point of emphasis for referees in 2014.
Considering the amount of bump-and-run coverage the Chiefs rely on, you can bet players and coaches alike were listening closely.
“The officials are going to call it,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You have to be ready.”
Illegal contact is called when defenders initiate contact with receivers more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage when the quarterback is in the pocket with the football or in the process of releasing it.
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Defensive holding is called when defenders grab any part of a receiver’s uniform prior to a pass.
Both are five-yard penalties that result in automatic first downs.
Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game between the Giants and Bills offered coaches their first in-game glimpse of how the rule will be re-emphasized this year. There were two illegal contact penalties called, both on the defense, and four defensive holding calls.
“It looked like it was handled fairly well,” Reid said. “It wasn’t a penalty-fest, necessarily.”
Reid and other coaches will obviously learn more as the preseason rolls on, but offensive coordinator Doug Pederson does anticipate a few more illegal contact penalties to be called when the regular season begins.
“Early in the regular season, you’re going to see those calls being made,” Pederson said. “They’re not going to be able to see them all, but it will be a point of emphasis early on.”
Indeed. The last time the league cracked down on illegal contact, the number of penalties called jumped to 191 in 2004, compared with only 79 the year before, according to Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira.
“When you have world-class athletes out there running routes,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said, “it’s kind of hard not to put your hand on them (after) five yards.”
For his part, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith isn’t sure the new emphasis on the rule will change much, though he noted that Super Bowl champion Seattle’s defensive success last season — which was predicated around physical bump-and-run coverage — may have something to do with the crackdown.
“I think more and more, you’ve seen defenses try to get aggressive,” Smith said. “Seattle is kind of the face of that, (a) defense that is really going to get aggressive, and be physical and get their hands on you and try to disrupt timing and things like that. I think that’s kind of spread around the league a little bit.”
Safety Malcolm Bronson said the Chiefs’ defense can adjust.
“You can’t really let it affect your aggression, but you have to be conscious in your mind that you only have five yards,” Bronson said. “You have to cover more with your feet and your eyes, because after five you have to get your hands off of them.”
Cornerback Marcus Cooper said the on-field time the referees spent with the Chiefs in camp was beneficial because it gave them an idea of what to expect prior to their preseason opener against Cincinnati on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
“Sometimes you get away with it; sometimes you don’t,” Cooper said. “We just want to go out there and play football and see what we can do from that standpoint. … A lot of times, it’s an instinctual thing, but every day we come out here and work on that.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said the coaches have been keeping an eye out for those types of penalties since the officials left town last week.
“If we think it’s a penalty on us whether they’re here or not, we’re going to say, ‘Hey you can’t grab a guy like that; you can’t do that,’ because you don’t want to get in bad habits, that’s the truth of it,” Sutton said.
But here’s another truth: No one really knows how the crackdown on both rules will effect the game, even though logic (and history) dictate that Pederson’s prediction about more penalties is probably right.
There’s some wiggle room, particularly at the end of games, where referees are typically averse to making game-changing calls.
“I think when you get in the crunch time of a game, the officials are going to let you play a little bit,” Pederson said. “It’s football. It’s a physical game, and things like that are going to happen.”