Members of the Baltimore Ravens' secondary have had to listen to a new kind of instruction from Coach Brian Billick during this training camp: "Cover with your legs."
Defensive backs are having to adjust their playing style because the NFL's competition committee decided to emphasize the strict enforcement of the illegal contact rule. A defender cannot use his arms or hands to redirect, restrict or impede the wide receiver beyond the five-yard "chuck zone." Incidental contact is permitted.
A group of NFL officials, led by umpire Undrey Wash, discussed the illegal contact rule and other points of emphasis, as well as a handful of rule changes, with players and the media on Thursday at the team hotel.
Enforcement of illegal contact drew the most attention from the Ravens.
"It's huge, probably as big an off-season decision as has been made in this league in 15 years," Billick said. "We're going to play to it, whatever they call, but I'm deeply concerned about the effects and the degree to which they're going to call it. The number one thing that guides this league is to not give one team a competitive advantage over another due to the rules."
The New England Patriots drew attention for their aggressive secondary play in their run to the Super Bowl, particularly in their 24-14 victory over Indianapolis in the AFC championship game.
However, Wash said that the competition committee's decision to review the illegal contact rule did not stem from that game. Rather, it came from the realization that passing yards per game in 2003 declined to their lowest level in 11 years. The idea, said Wash, is to put the emphasis back on the receiver being able to run his route unrestricted.
"They're tired of seeing defensive games. They're tired of seeing the receivers get shut down, they're tired of seeing the receivers get beat up," Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter said. "So they want to give them more freedom to run up the field and get into their route. . . . When you take a team like us, you got me and Chris [McAlister, a Pro Bowl cornerback who's in the midst of a holdout], and we like to get our hands on the receivers and slow them down. That's going to be something huge for us, and we've got to adjust to it."
There could be a flurry of calls in preseason games, as players and officials adjust to the tighter enforcement. Aside from creating longer games, the enforcement could have other effects.
Said Billick, "If they call it to the degree with which they're articulating it now, then this is going to become nothing but a Cover 2 league, because you're not going to be able to play any [man-to-man]."
Said Baxter, "Once you and the receiver are battling for the ball down the field, you're going to have some contact. If they're going to flag you for incidental contact, I think it's going to hurt the TV ratings. People are going to get tired of seeing the flags going up, the game being stopped. It's football, it's not tennis. . . . Unfortunately, the league is making it where a DB can't really play defense."
But Baxter, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season, did see one potential positive. He said with a sly grin, "I think the cornerback should get paid more money just for the fact that this new rule is in. If you get a true shut-down cornerback -- big bucks."