In St. Louis, the Rams’ defensive backs have tried practicing while clutching tennis balls. In Buffalo, the Bills’ secondary has been outfitted with boxing gloves. And in Cleveland, the teaching tool of the moment is kickboxing gloves.
Those are just a few of the techniques that defensive coaches have tried this preseason to prepare their players for the NFL’s clampdown on defensive holding.
There’s nothing new about the rule prohibiting defensive players from shoving, pushing, pulling and tugging on receivers once they’re five yards from the line of scrimmage. But by cracking down on it heading into the 2014 season, the NFL is tripping up plenty of defensive backs and, in the process, bringing live action to a crawl.
While fans bemoan the flag-fest that has resulted, with the number of penalties up nearly 44 percent over last year and games taking nearly five minutes longer, the Washington Redskins’ secondary is going about its business as usual.
“It really hasn’t affected us or bothered us as much as some people,” said defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who hasn’t resorted to any quirky coaching techniques.
For starters, Washington’s defensive backs tend to play more “off coverage” rather than press.
By standing seven to nine yards off a wide receiver rather than jammed up against him, defensive backs can get a far better look at the quarterback as he releases the ball. That’s the style of play the Redskins’ starting defensive backs excel at, and it’s a style Morris is well versed in as a teacher.
“There are times you’ve got to go up and play aggressive,” Morris concedes. “But we’ve got really good instinctual guys who can play off and really do good visual things, so that rule won’t affect us nearly as much.”
In fact, if safety Ryan Clark is to be believed, the crackdown on defensive holding and illegal contact could work in the Redskins’ favor.
“We’re lucky to have guys that are extremely good in off coverages,” Clark said. “And we have a coach that coaches it really well. So if these rules are implemented the way they have been in the preseason and are called the same way, I think it’ll be helpful to us. We have guys who can play without doing that.”
While the penalties were too plentiful in Washington’s 24-23 victory over Cleveland Monday, with the Redskins losing 100 yards on 11 infractions, only two were defensive holding calls.
The first, on nickelback E.J. Biggers, was a slight tug on a receiver’s jersey, but it proved costly, resulting in a Cleveland first down instead of a punt. And it was compounded by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Washington’s bench, which erupted in protest.
Neither Redskins starting cornerback was called for holding in the game.
DeAngelo Hall says he has never been one to tug or hang on receivers excessively, so he doesn’t expect it to be a problem. But he concedes it’s making press coverage a dicey proposition.
“I’ve just always tried to work on technique — trying to beat guys with my feet instead of using my hands,” Hall said. “But if a ref wanted to, he could call it on 90 percent of the plays out there.”
To prevent that, Hall says he tries to communicate with officials on the field.
“Hey, is this good? Is this not good?” Hall might ask, for example. “I just try to keep an open dialogue with those.”
In professional football, that’s smart office politics. And politics plays a role in NFL rule-making and enforcement.
The league’s decision to make defensive holding and illegal contact “points of emphasis” is widely perceived as a response to Seattle’s aggressive secondary and its success in making five-time MVP Peyton Manning and Denver’s high-scoring offense look ineffectual in the 43-8 Super Bowl rout.
“This league is about its star players; this league is about scoring points,” Clark notes, alluding to Seattle’s success in virtually shutting down Denver. “If those teams complain or go to the competition committee and the people on those committees feel like that was a hindrance, there’s a reason why. Of course the league is going to try to change it.”
Ryan, of course, has seen more than a few NFL rules enacted, existing rules tweaked and others given new emphasis during his 13 years in the league. He has learned the art of adapting.
It’s trickier for a youngster like Chase Minnifield, just two years removed from a standout career at Virginia. Minnifield was called for the Redskins’ other defensive hold Monday night.
“In college they let a lot more go. They let a lot more go last year, too,” said Minnifield, 25, who learned to play cornerback from his father, Frank Minnifield, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for Cleveland.
“We’ve all been playing this game probably our whole lives,” Minnifield said. “Just to come in here and try to change it this quickly, it’s kind of hard for us. We’re learning.”
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