- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The result of Super Bowl XLVIII appears set to influence this coming season. If this preseason filled with penalty flags is an indication, it already has.

The Seattle Seahawks used an aggressive style in the secondary to mute the highest-scoring team in NFL history during last season’s Super Bowl. After averaging 37.9 points per game in the regular season, the Denver Broncos scored a paltry eight points on their way to a 43-8 shellacking from Seattle.

Six months later, flags are flying before the season kicks off — an average of 18.9 per game through two weeks of the preseason. One of the league’s “points of emphasis” from the offseason is illegal downfield contact by defenders. Once five yards past the line of scrimmage, any player in coverage has to take his hands off a receiver.

After spending the last three years as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Redskins coach Jay Gruden is left befuddled by the new focus on an existing rule.

“I don’t know why they didn’t call it the last three years when I was an offensive coordinator,” Gruden said. “It’s amazing.”

If he walked into the locker room, he would hear two veterans theorize. Each says that a league predicated on scoring and entertainment saw the Super Bowl and thought a tweak was necessary.


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Watching that game was a flashback for Redskins safety Ryan Clark. He argues it  could well have been for Denver’s quarterback, Peyton Manning, too.

“I think the league is that reactionary from a marketing, star standpoint,” Clark said. “Definitely. This league is about its star players. This league is about scoring points. When you see something like that, and you can keep a team who broke records, a team who broke many records, in the single-digits and not make them effective — if those teams complain, or if they go to the competition committees and the people in those committees feel like that was a hindrance and that was a reason why, then of course the league is going to try to change it.”

In 2003, Manning led the Indianapolis Colts into New England to face the Patriots for the AFC title. At the time, Ty Law was one of the elite cornerbacks in the league and a very hands-on defender. The Colts showed up running the Air Coryell scheme, which led to the second-most points in the league that season. Earlier in the season, the Colts had scored 34 points against the Patriots.

But, Indianapolis scored just 14 points in the AFC championship game. The following year, Manning’s touchdown total leapt to 49 from 29. Coincidence. Or not.

“Ty Law and those guys really got after him, and they said, ‘Oh, you know, let’s try to get this out of the way,’” Clark said. “Peyton Manning goes to the Super Bowl, Seattle gets after him — ‘Oh, let’s have a point of emphasis on this.’ This game is about the star players. It’s about, you know, putting up points. That’s what people get excited about, so if there’s something defensively that they feel like is hindering that — if they feel that rules could change and still be football, I think they’re gonna focus on those things.”

Eleven-year veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall separately agreed with Clark that the emphasis is a reaction to the Seahawks, who play press-coverage at the line of scrimmage with some of the biggest cornerbacks in the league.

“I don’t think there are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Hall said. “We’ve got to live with it now. They got their ring, they did it their way. Now, we’ve got to all pay the consequences.”

Hall said he doesn’t think the rule will have much of an affect on him. He said he tries to play with his hands off receivers anyway.

Considering the chatter and flags, the Redskins have prioritized the topic in practice. Similar to when the NFL cracked down on tacklers leading with their helmets, teams are focusing on technique changes.

“We just have to do a better job of addressing it with our team on a daily basis,” Gruden said, “and not allow it to happen in practice or it will carryover to the game.”

During Monday night’s preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, the Redskins had one such instance.

Cleveland converted third-and-18 in the second quarter after E.J. Biggers was called for defensive holding. Instead of a punt, it was a 5-yard penalty and automatic first down. A highly irritated Gruden earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when disputing the flag.

“You look at the tape and sometimes they are calling it a lot closer on certain guys and certain parts of the game than others,” Gruden said. “You say, well, if that is a penalty, then that should be. It’s going to be a judgment call for the referees. It’s a tough thing to call.”

In Seattle, the Seahawks are taking it as a compliment.

“That’s a beautiful thing,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said earlier in training camp. “That’s respect, to me. If that’s the conversation, then it’s a sign of respect and people trying to figure it out. I think we’ve contributed to that.”

So do the Redskins.

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