Chiefs coach Andy Reid has made it clear that his team has certainly taken its fair share of lessons from their first two preseason games.
But following the Chiefs’ 28-16 loss to Carolina on Sunday, both Reid and his players made it clear that one new reality — the NFL’s crackdown on overly physical defensive play on receivers — sticks out like a sore thumb.
“It’s being called real tight, and we knew that coming in,” Reid said. “The bottom line is: They’re going to call (penalties) and it sounds like they are going to continue to call them, and you just hope it doesn’t turn away the spectators from the game. They get bored watching the officials throw the ball more than the quarterback. That could be a problem.”
If Reid sounds like a coach frustrated by the new rules, it’s because his team — which utilizes a physical bump-and-run style made popular by the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks — certainly felt the pinch against the Bengals on Aug. 7 and the Panthers.
Through two games, the Chiefs were penalized for illegal contact once, defensive holding three times and pass interference twice. If they continue to be whistled at the current rate in the regular season, they’ll rack up eight illegal contact penalties (compared with one in 2013), 24 defensive holding penalties (compared with 11) and 16 pass interference calls (compared with eight).
“Some of them are out of poor technique — you get behind, you grab,” Sutton said. “That would have been the same as last year. There’s other ones that are more touchy, if you would, but if that’s how they’re enforced, that is how they’re enforced and we’ve got to adjust to it.”
The Chiefs aren’t the only ones who need to adjust. According to The Washington Post, there have been 230 additional penalties through the first two weeks of the preseason — 134 of which were attributable to increases in illegal contact and defensive holding calls — compared with last year.
“It’s not just the Kansas City Chiefs; it’s the whole league,” said veteran cornerback Chris Owens. “So we’ve got to look at it in a broader picture.”
To review: 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. Defensive holding is called when defenders grab any part of a receiver’s uniform prior to a pass.
The referees are obviously serious about enforcing both, which are five-yard penalties that result in automatic first downs, in addition to pass interference.
Sutton and his players, however, say they can’t necessarily let this change their identity as a press-man team.
“We’re still going to try to challenge the receivers as much as we can,” Sutton said. “We’ve just got to keep emphasizing cleaning up our technique.”
Indeed, in the absence of physical play beyond five yards, cornerbacks say the margin for error has never been smaller.
“Your technique has got to be on point,” Owens said. “I can only speak for myself, but you mess up on your technique, and then you start to grab and pull.”
So far, each of the Chiefs’ top three outside cornerbacks — Sean Smith, Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker — has been whistled for at least one of the aforementioned penalties.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smith, who received a defensive holding call against Carolina, said he has no intention of eliminating his physical style of play altogether. That would negate his best weapon, which is his uncommon size and length.
But adjustments are necessary, and he clearly understands the finer points of what he and the rest of the corners have to do going forward.
“(You) learn how to use your feet,” Smith said. “Especially in press, you want to stay square as long as you can. From the looks of it, you’re only allowed to give (the receiver) one good pop as far as pressing. From there, hands off. … Try to put yourself in good position.”
Smith said the effort toward perfecting this starts at practice, particularly when it comes to gaining a second sense for when the five-yard window for bump-and-run coverage has passed.
“They’re not playing that this year,” Smith said. “They’re not giving you five and a half or six. I’m trying to get my hands on him and trying to keep a mental clock on how far I am downfield.”
Smith knows this is something that’s much easier to say than do. That’s why it could could prove to be a challenge for all of the Chiefs’ corners, as well as several others around an increasingly pass-happy and offense-friendly league.
Still, Smith says he and his fellow corners aren’t letting their spirits sink because of the rules.
“Things change. Guys get bigger and faster,” Smith said. “It’s always going to be something that kind of changes the game, but there’s nothing like going out there in front of the fans. As long as you use your technique and make plays, I feel like that kind of overrides everything else.”