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Danny Kelly | September 2, 2015

As the NFL opens up the air, DBs are sitting ducks

Last year, the NFL Competition Committee enacted stricter enforcement of rules protecting wide receivers. The game might never be the same.

"Has it ever been tougher to play defensive back in the NFL?"

That question, posited by Kevin Harlan last year during Week 14's matchup between the Bills and Broncos, followed this play, an "illegal contact" infraction by Nickell Robey on Wes Welker in the end zone. Instead of a big-time stop on third-and-7, this became an automatic first down for the Broncos, who would find the end zone two plays later. They went on to win by 7:

This ticky-tacky, touch foul could serve as confirmation that the age of punch-you-in-the-mouth, fearsome cornerbacks like Dick "Night Train" Lane, Lester "The Molester" Hayes, Kevin "The Rock" Ross, or Skip "Dr. Death" Thomas are long gone.

The 2014 season saw new emphases placed on defensive pass interference, defensive holding and illegal contact. The almost-draconian prosecution of this mandate affected game flow and gave the defense a seemingly impossible task. "Defense hasn't been outlawed," wrote The Boston Globe's Christopher Gasper, "but it might as well be."

There was trepidation from players, coaches and fans as to what these rules emphases would do to the game -- both immediately and in the long term -- and no one really knew what to expect. One year later, what's been the effect of the league's decision to further benefit the offensive side of the sport?

The effect of these rules emphases

The long and short of it was that the league wanted to take some of the subjectivity of the defensive pass interference and illegal contact rules out of the game. The NFL's Competition Committee, made up of eight members -- Rich McKay, Jeff Fisher, Stephen Jones, Marvin Lewis, John Mara, Mark Murphy, Ozzie Newsome, Rick Smith and Mike Tomlin -- looked at the existing rulebook and decided to make these calls a point of emphasis. First, they wanted to tighten up the regulation of the 5-yard buffer zone defenders had before they'd be called for illegal contact.

"I think there has been a perception that defensive backs have pushed the envelope with the [buffer zone]," Ben Austro, editor of Football Zebras and author of So You Think You Know Football: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules, told me.

"I think a lot of the conversation by the Competition Committee before the 2014 season was due to complaints from both receivers and defensive backs." said Austro. "A legal chuck one week wound up being called more tightly with a different crew, and players were asking for more consistency. Before 2014, if a defensive back was in the process of disengaging in the vicinity of 5 yards, he got the benefit of the doubt, which made the enforcement a little fuzzy. Although the Seahawks wound up being the popular lightning rod for leveraging this enforcement in their favor, it really was more widespread."

"They talk to the officials about these points of emphasis," Jim Daopoulos, who spent 11 years as an on-field NFL official and 12 years as an NFL Supervisor of Officials, told me. "They tell them, 'It says a contact has to occur within 5 yards.' As officials, we used to give them this little buffer zone, you know, 5-and-a-half, maybe 6 yards; we give them that buffer zone to have that little contact."

"Now, what they've said is, 'Hey, no more of that: 5 yards is 5 yards, and that's where the contact stops.'"

And, evidently, they mean all contact:

Yes, that got a flag. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie barely contacted Larry Fitzgerald, and fell over in the process. However, it could be said, even though the throw is way too high, that his contact disrupted the timing.

The same goes for the play below, where Colts defensive back Greg Toler grazes Patriots receiver Julian Edelman past that 5-yard buffer zone, and draws a flag. The throw is high, probably uncatchable, but if there's any contact, the referees were instructed to throw a flag:

For the most part, they did.

"It's a matter of consistency," said NFL Senior Director of Officiating Al Riveron. "We take out the thought process, the gray area, the 'Well, did he run through it, did it really impede him running the pattern?' Now, everyone knows, you grab a shirt -- if you grab the shirt, period, it's a foul -- if you impede the receiver from running his route after 5 yards, it's a foul. Before, we would stand there and go, 'Well, did it impede the play, did it hold him up? Was the receiver able to run through it?' Now it takes all that judgment out. Now, you hold him, you pull the shirt, you put your arm around his waist and turn him, it's a foul. Whether in anybody's view it impeded him from running his route or not, it's a foul."

It's no surprise that consequently the total number of these fouls called in 2014 jumped up significantly. Here are the numbers from the last five seasons.

It wasn't just illegal contact that became a major focal point. Defensive holding calls jumped up significantly as well, as shown above. Like the illegal contact mandate, the goal was to take the subjectivity out of it.

"There used to be a lot of 'snuggles' -- we used to call them 'snuggles,' where guys would get together and they'd kind of grab, they'd get in tight," explained Daopoulos. "Well, [the Competition Committee] wanted some of that snuggling to go away too. They want that receiver to run free. They want him to have that opportunity to get open. So, what they did was that they tightened it up."

Defensive holding penalties increased from 115 calls in 2010 to 181 in 2013, then shot up to 235 calls in 2014.

Again, this was the consequence of the NFL trying to take subjectivity out of officiating.

"The problem that used to occur was that there was an awful lot of inconsistency" in how defensive holding was regulated, Daopoulos said. "As officials, you'd watch it, but basically what you'd try to do is, you tried to determine in your gut. You watch the two players and ask, 'What's going on there? Is he getting an advantage? Is there an advantage and disadvantage?' Then, we'd have to make a decision.

"Now, that philosophy has changed a little bit, and they've wanted that called really tight."

What these emphases mean for defenders

Obviously, the (over)emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding affected the way that defensive backs -- namely cornerbacks -- can play the game. Corners used to be able to get away with heavy jams at the line, muggings really, and could pull and tug on jerseys down the field as long as it wasn't overly obnoxious. That's gone out the window, said Daopoulos.

"Defensive players thought it was called too tightly," he told me. "They thought they weren't really given the opportunity to play defense."

At least, not the type of defense they grew up playing, nor the style they had been coached to do. The new crackdown meant players' styles required more finesse.

"It's a little frustrating," Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It puts more emphasis on cleaner technique and things like that. It's something we have to deal with."

As Reidel Anthony, a former All-American receiver for the Florida Gators and first-round pick for the Buccaneers, told me, the new rules have changed the way that the game is taught. Anthony, who played five years in the NFL, is now a coach and an instructor for both receivers and cornerbacks with Performance Compound in Tampa. What he sees is an evolution in coverage as the old-school "bump-and-run" coverage has been replaced by a less conspicuous method.

In the old days, corners would use "an arm bar," Anthony told me, "or grab you with their hand when you come out of your break; they'd really get up on you at the line of scrimmage, almost lining up offsides, you know, just being really physical. Nowadays, they can't be that physical, because if they miss, they can't grab, and once the receiver gets by them, they're in a bad situation.

"Everything now is trail-technique (with minimal contract)," he continued. "So, corners are being taught to get into the hip pocket of the receiver and try to read the route. That's why you see a lot of the press coverage now. They try to disrupt the timing of the route just by standing in front of you, and make you adjust your route a little bit and use a release, instead of getting a free release."

Richard Sherman, and the Seahawks, who have been "credited" by some for the implementation of these new rules changes with their physicality over the years, have illustrated this sea change in style that Reidel talked about. Sherman and the Seahawks have implemented an innovative technique called the "step-kick," which focuses less on the jam and instead simply emphasizes patience.

The idea is to disrupt the timing of a route by simply standing in the way of your opponent. They can't get a free release, so they have to use a receiver release technique to get off the line of scrimmage. The strong jam, the pulling and tugging at the line is less common. It's been replaced somewhat by a mirroring at the line, with a trail-technique down the field:

The step-kick technique, as Jayson Jenks of The Seattle Times writes,

Is pretty much as it sounds. At the line of scrimmage, Seattle's corners get in front of their receiver to press. Receivers usually shimmy and shake to create separation at the line -- think of Doug Baldwin -- but the Seahawks teach their corners to take one step sideways when the ball is snapped. That way, the corner is less tempted to react wrongly to the receiver's dancing. That's the "step."

The "kick" in the equation comes when the dancing is over. At some point the receiver has to get going, and when he does, the Seahawks kick their foot backward to run with the receiver and keep him in front of them.

The step-kick in action:

As Sherman told draft prospect Vladimir Emilien on American Muscle, it's all about patience:

"No offense," Sherman tells Emilien, "but I think I can help you."

"So, you see how you are hopping and jumping? Until he gets outside of my frame, I'm not going nowhere. He comes, I'm just here -- he gets outside of my frame? That's when I hop. I'm always in control. Patience. If you can calm down your feet, and relax, it can help you." The step-kick, or as Sherman puts it, the step-hop.

Of course, not every team plays press, and even the Seahawks play a lot of off-coverage. With off-coverage, the technique at the top of receivers' routes must change with the times. No more grabbing and "snuggling" will be permitted, so tape study of route combinations and tendencies becomes even more important. The offense has a clear advantage going forward because receivers can more or less go where they please, unimpeded, with impunity. This means cornerbacks must be more savvy, instinctual and reactive, and footwork and technique are more important than brute strength and physicality.

What it means for the receiver position

The NFL tends to evolve in cycles of action and reaction. Due to the combination of these new rules emphases, and a trend toward bigger cornerbacks on the outside, there's been a reactionary swing that's seen smaller receivers achieve more success.

Since his time in the NFL (1997-2001), Anthony tells me that the NFL has changed tremendously.

"For the smaller guys like myself that were known for speed and not all the strength and big-body wise," he said, "the ability to get a free release, it makes it a lot easier. Because now, after 5 yards, they really can't even put a hand on you.

"So now, you're just running free, you don't have to worry about anyone grabbing on you, tugging on you, pushing you, really slowing you down," he adds. "That's why you see the smaller guys still making a big splash, the Antonio Browns, the Steve Smiths, those guys are 5'9, a buck-eighty-five, a buck-ninety. So, with the ability to get those free releases, with nobody touching you, it makes the game a whole lot easier for the smaller, speed guys."

As you can see over the past five years, the number of "small" receivers (5'11 and under) in the top 20 of NFL catches has not only jumped, but has crowded the top of the list:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Roddy White Wes Welker Calvin Johnson Pierre Garcon Antonio Brown
Reggie Wayne Roddy White Brandon Marshall Antonio Brown Demaryius Thomas
Santana Moss Calvin Johnson Wes Welker Andre Johnson Julio Jones
Larry Fitzgerald Percy Harvin Andre Johnson Julian Edelman Emmanuel Sanders
Andre Johnson Victor Cruz Reggie Wayne Brandon Marshall Golden Tate
Brandon Marshall Dwayne Bowe AJ Green AJ Green Jordy Nelson
Wes Welker Brandon Marshall Demaryius Thomas Kendall Wright Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola Marques Colston Dez Bryant Dez Bryant Odell Beckham
Marques Colston Larry Fitzgerald Roddy White Demaryius Thomas Randall Cobb
Stevie Johnson Steve Smith Victor Cruz Alshon Jeffery Dez Bryant
Davone Bess Stevie Johnson Michael Crabtree Eric Decker Alshon Jeffery
Hakeem Nicks Hakeem Nicks Eric Decker Josh Gordon Andre Johnson
Calvin Johnson Reggie Wayne Marques Colston Anquan Boldin Jeremy Maclin
Brandon Lloyd Nate Washington Randall Cobb Harry Douglas Jarvis Landry
Greg Jennings Nate Burleson Stevie Johnson Jordy Nelson Anquan Boldin
Dwayne Bowe Michael Crabtree Julio Jones Calvin Johnson TY Hilton
Terrell Owens Mike Wallace Brian Hartline Larry Fitzgerald Roddy White
Percy Harvin Pierre Garcon Brandon Lloyd TY Hilton Steve Smith
Jeremy Maclin Antonio Brown Steve Smith DeSean Jackson Keenan Allen
Miles Austin Jabar Gaffney Vincent Jackson Vincent Jackson DeAndre Hopkins
5 4 3 5 7

Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate, Julian Edelman, Odell Beckham Jr. and Randall Cobb took the league by storm in 2014, and make up six of the top nine in the NFL in receptions. T.Y. Hilton and Steve Smith made the top-20 list as well, checking in at 16 and 18, respectively. This was a departure from the norm, where a few "small" receivers would be sprinkled in among the top-20, but that list was normally dominated by the big, outside No.1 types.

Not only that, but smaller receivers are factoring more in scoring as well. Here are the top touchdown catching receivers from the last five years:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Dwayne Bowe Calvin Johnson James Jones Demaryius Thomas Dez Bryant
Greg Jennings Jordy Nelson Eric Decker Dez Bryant Antonio Brown
Calvin Johnson Laurent Robinson Dez Bryant Calvin Johnson Jordy Nelson
Brandon Lloyd Dez Bryant AJ Green Brandon Marshall Odell Beckham
Hakeem Nicks Victor Cruz Brandon Marshall Eric Decker Randall Cobb
Mike Williams (TB) Vincent Jackson Marques Colston AJ Green Mike Evans
Stevie Johnson Greg Jennings Victor Cruz Jerrico Cotchery Torrey Smith
Jeremy Maclin Wes Welker Julio Jones Larry Fitzgerald Demaryius Thomas
Mike Wallace Plaxico Burress Demaryius Thomas Marvin Jones Alshon Jeffrey
Roddy White t-9 Michael Crabtree Wes Welker Jeremy Maclin

Three small receivers -- Brown, Beckham Jr. and Cobb -- all made the top-10 list among receivers in touchdowns in 2014. Looking through the previous four years, only Wes Welker shows up on those lists, in 2011 and 2013.

As's Bucky Brooks noted in a tape study on some of these standout small receivers:

With more NFL defenses utilizing press coverage to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game, coaches and scouts are placing a greater emphasis on acquiring slippery receivers with the speed, quickness and burst to escape the clutches of physical corners on the perimeter. Long, rangy corners routinely struggle to shadow shifty receivers at the line of scrimmage; thus, pass catchers with electric moves and polished route-running skills can often create big-play opportunities on slants and fades.

As Brooks puts it:

For all the value big-bodied receivers bring to the table, particularly in the red zone, it is hard to find a mammoth receiver with the speed and quickness to generate explosive plays in the passing game (receptions that cover at least 25 yards). Offensive coordinators covet pass catchers who can deliver big gains on vertical routes or catch-and-run plays, and most receivers who excel in that area are speedsters with exceptional burst and acceleration. They blow past defenders on an assortment of downfield routes (go-route, post-route and stutter-go), yet also have the ability to turn a crossing route into a big gain.

Anthony, whose knowledge base straddles the old school (his experience in the NFL) with the new (his experience preparing receivers for the NFL), says that the facets coaches and players are focusing on has changed.

First off, of course, is a receiver release. Instead of the physical demands in beating a mugging at the line, it's now a more technical art.

"The first thing at the line of scrimmage is to use your feet," Anthony told me, "but the other thing, is your hands. Getting off the line in press coverage is like being in a boxing match. You throw one punch at a time, and if they throw a left hand out there, you knock it down with your right.

"If they throw a right hand, visa versa," he explained. "So, using your hands is the key. Once you get their hands off you, they can't touch you for the rest of your route. Now, you work the top of your route. That's where you have to be a little more precise, doing a lot of work at the top of the route."

Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, all 5'10, 186 pounds of him, is one of the best -- and most prolific -- pass catchers in the NFL, and represents the prototype for this new trend toward smaller, shiftier receivers. Below, Brown exhibits what Anthony explains, using his hands to counter Terrance Newman's pesky jam attempt. Once Brown has beaten Newman off the line, you can see Newman's panic set in. He knows he's been beat:

In turn, Newman grabs ahold of Brown's jersey (miraculously not called, for some reason). Brown reacts though, using Newman's momentum against him. He stops on a dime, comes back to the football to make the catch.

Or, as Anthony described: "Move your feet, boom-boom-boom, give them a six-step to go, knock their hands down, now, at the top of the route, if the guy's behind me, guess what? I've got to use my feet like I did on my release."

Brown, naturally, is the master at this. "Give them something that makes it look like you're going outside, then run the dig," explains Anthony. "Or, get them thinking you're going inside, then run the comeback or the out."

Watch below how Brown beats the press, gets the corner in trail-technique, then uses his head, shoulders and footwork to sell an in-breaking dig route, only to run the sharp out-route to the sideline. That's a clinic:

"So, the things that you did at the beginning of the route," said Anthony, "nowadays you have to do that the top, because instead of being right in front of you, he's right behind you."

Effects on the game at large

As you might've guessed, these rules emphases didn't just affect the techniques that players used. They may have correlated with increases in passing yards and passing touchdowns. There are now an average of 473.6 passing yards per game, up more than 30 yards per game since just 2010. The 807 passing touchdowns in 2014 was an all-time record.

However, with all the emphasis on freeing up the offense and increasing scoring, there was a surprising drop in passing attempts in 2014, and even more puzzlingly, scoring went down slightly:

NFL PASSING STATS 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
PASS ATT 17,269 17,410 17,788 18,236 17,897
PASS ATT/GAME 33.70 34.00 34.70 35.40 34.90
PASSING YARDS 113,450 117,601 118,418 120,626 121,247
PASSING YARDS/GAME PER TEAM 221.6 229.7 231.3 235.6 236.8
TOTAL PASSING YARDS/GAME 443.2 459.4 462.6 471.2 473.6
TD PASSES 751 745 757 804 807
POINTS/GAME PER TEAM 22 22.2 22.8 23.4 22.6
TOTAL POINTS/GAME 44 44.4 45.6 46.8 45.2

That scoring went down slightly in 2014 is tough to explain. Is this an aberration, a one-year anomaly based on a litany of other factors, or has the league peaked in terms of the scoring explosion? One year is obviously too small a sample size to know with any certainty.

But the curious and contradictory fact that passing attempts went down in 2014 could be partly explained by the fact that there were more penalties enforced for defensive holding (235 in 2014 to just 181 in 2013), and illegal contact (106 to 38) in 2014 than ever before. That's 122 pass attempts (mostly) that became a "no play" in records tracking because of the emphases on holding and illegal contact.

The illegal contact penalty is especially interesting in that it can been exceedingly ticky-tacky -- literally any contact is outlawed -- but it's a 5-yard penalty that results in an automatic first down. I took a look at third downs of 5 or more yards, and the numbers in 2014 compared to previous years are telling:

PENALTIES 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Illegal contact automatic first downs on third down 23 26 17 15 35
Illegal contact automatic first downs on third-and-5-plus 14 13 11 12 29

These raw numbers aren't incredibly striking in that they're super prevalent, but those touch-fouls on illegal contact on third-and-long have the potential to completely change games, particularly late in the fourth quarter.

They're drive extenders, crucial in both comeback attempts and in putting games away. They can completely change the complexion of a game. And, the frequency of touch-fouls being called on third-and-5-plus nearly tripled. On the sport's most important down (third), the rules emphases really showed up, and the onus is now less on the offense converting a tough pass play from the pocket and now more reliant on simply drawing a flag. Third-and-5-plus plays are only converted about 30 percent f the time. Will these emphases increase the odds on third-and-long significantly? Will offenses take advantage of this with plays and route combinations designed to draw these ticky-tacky, illegal contact penalties?

If refs are being instructed to take all subjectivity out of it, it's certainly possible.

The bottom line

Seahawks corner Richard Sherman didn't mince words last year when he pointed out that the NFL simply wants more scoring because of the popularity and importance of fantasy football. "When the fantasy football numbers need to be what they need to be, then the league needs to do what it needs to do to get it done," he said. "This is a money-driven league, so whatever sells the tickets is gonna sell the tickets."

Former NFL official and Supervisor of Officials Jim Daopolous didn't disagree. "Every year, the Competition Committee gets together, and they try to determine what they can do to improve the game. They change rules for two reasons: One, to increase offense, to increase scoring, and number two, for safety reasons."

The offensive numbers bear that out. The TV ratings bear that out. The NFL is more popular than ever. It's simply up to the players to adapt to this irreversible trend toward favoring the offense.

Savvy defenders must observe, know the tendencies of certain referees, and adapt to how tightly the game is being called until calls become more consistent. That isn't actually that different than before.

And if defenders feel diminished or like the added scrutiny makes the game softer? Tough luck.

About the Author

NFL staff writer at The Ringer.

Formerly a writer at, Editor-in-Chief & lead writer at, and NFL gameday social at @SBNationNFL.

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