ON HIS WAY to the airport, Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith always checks and rechecks his backpack for the one item he absolutely must have when traveling home to California: his Super Bowl ring. A year ago in New Orleans, Smith's aggressive, physical coverage on 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree on fourth and goal with 1:46 to play secured the Ravens' win, despite the volcanic protestations of coach Jim Harbaugh, who simply couldn't believe Smith wasn't flagged. To this day, Niners fans who cross paths with Smith keep up the barrage. "They still see me and go, 'That was holding, that was holding, that was holding,'" says Smith. "I always just flash my ring and say, 'Yeah, well, the only thing I'm holding now is the championship.'"
Smith's mostly incidental contact with Crabtree did more than help the Ravens procure the world's most ostentatious trump card, featuring 243 diamonds and custom amethyst. It also ushered in a new, ingenious and highly effective tool for defensive backs in this pass-happy era of the NFL -- and that tool played a big role in determining this year's Super Bowl matchup. Watch closely downfield inside MetLife Stadium during the big game and you're sure to see the same sleight of hand Smith and the Ravens pulled a year ago: not just embracing pass interference but using it as an effective weapon. In today's NFL, the choice is simple: Defenses can back off, stay penalty-free and surrender 500 yards passing, like the 3–13 Redskins (one pass interference call all season, 29.9 ppg allowed). Or they can follow the lead of Seattle (NFL-most 13 PIs, NFL-best 14.4 ppg) and push the boundaries of what the rulebook allows.
Bruising Broncos corner Chris Harris certainly did. He had seven penalties (four for defensive holding) for a Denver defense that finished with 10 PI calls, but he's out with a torn ACL. And make no mistake: He'll be missed on Super Sunday. The otherwise soft Denver pass D gave up 254.4 ypg this season, 27th in the league. Veteran Champ Bailey will shift over from safety to replace Harris, and as counterintuitive as it sounds, Bailey (zero penalties in 2013) may want to consider digging out the mugging gloves that got him seven yellow hankies in 2012. "It's a no-brainer," says Smith. "I'd rather risk a PI than play too tentatively and let Crabtree catch the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl and never, ever be able to redeem myself."
The numbers suggest the NFL is cracking down more than ever on PI -- 233 penalties cost defenses 4,058 yards in 2013; by comparison, five years ago those numbers were 154 for 2,534 yards. But the truth is that defenses are actually camouflaging new, überaggressive coverage techniques by hiding them in plain sight. It's the same logic loophole long used by offensive linemen: hold on nearly every single play because refs simply won't throw 50 flags in a game. The same principle works on defense. If everything in the NFL looks like pass interference, that's the same thing as saying nothing is. It's genius, really. "Coaches tell us that now: 'Hey, they can't call it on every play,'" Smith says. "You see how much Seattle gets away with? They get called for it a lot, but they also get away with it a lot."
That's because referees are often tentative, confused and flat-out fatigued watching all the holding, pushing and hand-checking going on during nearly every pass play. That, in turn, only increases the upside to a DB's risk/reward calculation. What's more, when corners and safeties do get called for interference, it's not a punishment but a license to be even more aggressive, knowing that odds are, they won't get flagged again right away. A pass interference call once shamed DBs into compliance. Now it emboldens them to harass receivers even more. "That concept is very prevalent out there, but especially so with the teams in the playoffs," says Gerry Austin, an NFL official for 26 years who now serves as a rules analyst for ESPN. "NFL leadership has very serious concerns not just about the number of PI calls being made but the number of PI calls not being made. The whole thing is headed for a major review."
More than likely, the investigation will start with the Seahawks, who led the league in both penalties (1,183 total yards) and total defense (273.6 ypg). The connection is no coincidence. In the past decade, the most penalized pass defenses (holding and PIs) all have one thing in common: winning records. Pass interference, materially impacting a receiver's opportunity to catch the ball, is a spot foul that results in an automatic first down. Even so, defenses still lost only 17.4 yards per game from PI calls this season. The trade-off is so advantageous that, in the Legion of Boom, interference flags don't mean you're sloppy or undisciplined -- they mean you're doing your job. "You have to go for it and play as aggressively as you can," says Earl Thomas, Seattle's All-Pro safety. "If that means a PI call goes against you, so be it." Adds teammate Richard Sherman: "Maybe years ago it would have been better to back off and not risk that 30-yard penalty. You just can't do that anymore."
On Super Sunday, the Seahawks DBs will meet their match in Denver's crafty wideouts. Broncos receiver Eric Decker drew five PI calls this year, tied for third most in the NFL, and Wes Welker had a dubious divisional round fourth-quarter flop in a win over San Diego. Most observers thought it was inadvertent contact between Welker and safety Marcus Gilchrist; refs said it was a 23-yard foul.
The reality is, however, that refs usually are reluctant to toss an interference flag in a game's critical moments. Take, for example, the most notorious noncall of the 2013 season. In Week 11, the Panthers held on, literally, to beat the Patriots 24-20 when, on Tom Brady's final throw into the end zone, linebacker Luke Kuechly was initially flagged for impeding tight end Rob Gronkowski's path to the ball. The underthrown pass had been intercepted, and gun-shy officials ultimately picked up the flag, claiming the ball was uncatchable. "The refs gave me a bone there," Kuechly admits now.
Expertly exploiting the PI loophole helped catapult Kuechly and Carolina into the playoffs. Last year Smith's touchy coverage helped the Ravens secure their Super Bowl bling. Now Seattle's ultra-aggressive secondary has set the Seahawks up for a chance at their first-ever NFL title. For defenses trying to survive in this pass-happy league, if you want a shot at a Super Bowl ring, the message is clear: Just reach out and grab it.