Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Godfrey didn’t need to watch the NFL’s annual officiating video to find out the league is cracking down on illegal contact.
Every exhibition Godfrey tuned into during the first weekend he saw a bunch of penalty flags being thrown in the direction of defensive players.
“I think every game I’ve pretty much watched, I’ve seen it called on somebody,” Godfrey said recently. “As (defensive backs) you’re just going to have to (jam), get off and just run with the receivers.”
The stricter policing of illegal contact comes a year after the Seattle Seahawks’ physical defensive backs clutched and grabbed their way to the league’s No. 1 defensive ranking and a Super Bowl victory against the Denver Broncos.
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The rule regarding illegal contact – defined as defenders making contact with receivers more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage while the quarterback is in the pocket – hasn’t changed. But the league has made it a point of emphasis, as evidenced by all the flags through the first two weeks of the exhibition schedule.
According to NFL analyst Brian McIntyre, officials called 27 illegal contact penalties during the first week of exhibitions. That’s more than the 18 illegal contact flags that were thrown during the entire 2013 exhibition schedule.
Critics – like New York Jets coach Rex Ryan – see it as another move to help offenses in a league in which the passing game is king. Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason is concerned an uptick in penalties will affect the flow of the game.
While some players and coaches predict the flags won’t fly as often during the regular season after officials have made their point, the league’s head of officiating, Dean Blandino, told Peter King of mmqb.si.com that regular-season games would be called the same way.
“We have to remain consistent. I knew we’d see a spike in calls when we put out these points of emphasis,” Blandino told King. “But coaches adjust, and players adjust. They have to, and they know it. And we’ll correct our officials when we feel they’re being overzealous with certain calls.”
Godfrey said the adjustment for defensive players will be getting their hands on receivers closer to the line of scrimmage, then disengaging within the permissible 5-yard area.
A number of teams have altered their practice strategies to try to get their defensive backs to play less “handsy.” Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks had his defensive backs wear sparring mitts, like those worn by boxers, at practices during organized team activities.
“We just have to be smart and get it in a little earlier as far as our jams, because anything downfield those guys are going to call it,” Godfrey said. “If they see any separation with our hands on, they’re going to call it on us and not on the offense.”
Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said he believes it was time to clean up the play in the defensive backfield.
“It obviously helps the offense, where we feel like when we’re in that 7-8-yard range, you can get your hands off me,” Cotchery said. “We’re always crying about something as receivers. But I think it allows for us to be able to play faster on offense and keep it clean with the defensive backs, allow them to play their technique in a more sound way.”
Offensive pass interference is another point of emphasis this season, although defensive players are skeptical about whether officials will call receivers for pushing off consistently.
“This is an offensive league. They want to see more touchdowns and stuff like that,” Godfrey said. “We’ll see.”
There have been three illegal contact penalties called during the Panthers’ first two exhibitions, all of which were declined because the receiver made the catch for a gain longer than 5 yards.
A fourth illegal contact flag – on Godfrey during Sunday’s game against Kansas City – was picked up when officials determined Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith had left the pocket.
Cason, in his first season with Carolina, was flagged for his contact on Buffalo receiver Robert Woods on Woods’ 7-yard reception during the exhibition opener.
“When I watched it again, it was very close. In my opinion it was at 5” yards, Cason said. “It’s just one of those things where you see it, OK, this is how they’re going to do it, then you adjust.
“It’ll change things. But for me, my mindset is find a way. … Get your hands on them a little earlier, work on doing that. Just switch it up just a little bit and make those adjustments.”
While defensive-minded Ryan told reporters in New York that officials should “let guys play,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he understands what the league is trying to do.
“Not to get on Rex or anything, but my concern is if we let them play and we’re pulling and tugging and pushing and shoving, where’s the advantage? Who’s the one that gets the advantage?” said Rivera, a former NFL linebacker.
“Let’s not pull and shove and push and tug. Let’s get up there and let’s jam, let’s run and let’s be physical when the ball gets there.”
Panthers strong safety Roman Harper, entering his ninth NFL season, said the illegal contact crackdown will make it tougher to cover receivers.
But the former New Orleans safety believes flag-filled games with lots of stoppages will cause Commissioner Roger Goodell and other NFL officials to have a change of heart.
“They said it was a point of emphasis so throughout the year they’re going to throw more flags,” Harper said. “But it’ll get corrected next year. The more the fans complain and Roger and those guys see it’s slowing down the game or messing up their TV, they’ll change it.” Staff writer Jonathan Jones contributed to this article.