Colts should benefit from emphasis on illegal contact

It was the manhandling received by Indianapolis Colts receivers in the 2003 AFC championship game, a contest in which the physical New England secondary drew not a single flag on the field but might have been found guilty of molestation in a court of law, that forced the NFL to re-emphasize its illegal contact rule for the 2004 season.

And so it seems only natural, right, that the Indianapolis receiving corps might be among the most notable beneficiaries in a season when game officials will legislate the rule in a much more strident fashion? Probably so.

But the Colts offense isn't the only one, nor the wondrous Marvin Harrison the lone wide receiver, that figure to turn the newfound advantage into more touchdowns. Over the last several seasons, the gap between receivers and cornerbacks has closed markedly, as clubs have concentrated defensively on adding bigger and more physical boundary players. The re-widening of the advantage, with cornerbacks likely handcuffed in '04 until they adapt to the changes, should be a boon to singular receivers like Randy Moss of Minnesota and to receiving corps like those in New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Teams in the NFC North spent the past few springs trying to uncover cornerbacks with physical dimensions that might rival Moss' raw size and strength. Their hard work will still be rewarded but, under the rules emphasis for this year, being able to run deep with Moss is more essential again than being able to muscle him around.

"In the best of times," said Green Bay safety Darren Sharper, "you needed every weapon at your disposal when you lined up against (Moss). Now they're taking your hands away, and it's going to be almost impossible to redirect him, to turn him a certain way. There is no telling how much better it's going to make him and that's the scary part."

There is some perception that the interpretation of the illegal contact rule this season will turn loose the NFL's wide receiver sprinters, allowing them to run unchecked through the secondary, opening up the game to more deep throws. And that, according to many wide receivers and defensive backs alike, could well be the case.

But there is also a feeling that the rules will make even more effective those offenses that rely on timing, shorter routes, precision, getting the ball out far more quickly. Those who subscribe to that theory contend that it's the receivers who work the middle of the field and the shorter, intermediate routes, who will most benefit from the alterations.

Some of those teams: The Colts, Steelers, Rams, Saints, Patriots.

Perhaps the most surprising team in the bunch, Pittsburgh, scored high marks from NFL cornerbacks surveyed about offenses which should be enhanced by the restraints placed on secondary coverages in 2004. The rationale was that the Steelers have a deep threat (Plaxico Buress) who can also control the middle, a technician (Hines Ward) who can get open in virtually any intermediate situation, and a slot receiver (Antwaan Randle El) who works well inside the hashes and on short, option-type routes.

"They might not have the tight end you can be a presence inside," said Cleveland corner Daylon McCutcheon, "but they have variety. And, with (quarterback Tommy) Maddox, the ball is usually out pretty quickly. They run a lot of underneath stuff. So once they are past the five-yard mark, where you can't have your hands on them, they're just looking to hook up and find a soft spot, and they are really good at it."

The same can be said for the Patriots, who in the past have used their short passing game almost as a surrogate running attack. That could change a bit with the addition of tailback Corey Dillon, but the basic passing game isn't likely to undergo any major facelift. With smaller, quicker receivers, pass-catchers who run great route adjustments and cover the first 5-7 yards in a burst, secondaries may have to creep closer to the line of scrimmage.

Even then, quarterback Tom Brady unloads so quickly, it's going to be tough to slow the New England passing game.

"With (designs) like New England's," said New York Jets cornerback Donnie Abraham, "the key is disrupting the timing. You do that by knocking a guy off his route, getting a hand on him, just trying to delay things a count or to so that (Brady) has to hold the ball. Take that ability away and those guys are going to be playing pitch-and-catch."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.