Inside Slant: Pass defense takes a hit

By most statistical measures, 2013 was the best regular season for offenses in NFL history. Eventually, however, traditionalists exacted some balance. Teams with the top five defenses all reached the playoffs, and the best -- the Seattle Seahawks -- won Super Bowl XLVIII in a rout.

That disparate backdrop looms over the opening of training camp, where teams annually implement plans to best capitalize on the state of the league. As it turns out, they are due for an unexpected twist.

The NFL has instructed its officials to include two defensive penalties -- both of which restrict contact by pass defenders -- among their major points of emphasis for the 2014 season, I've confirmed. Historically, points of emphasis can lead to at least a temporary spike in penalties as players adjust. In this case, it would be reasonable to conclude that defenders will have even less margin for error in stopping offenses that already are operating at historic levels.

The league has not yet confirmed this development publicly, but officials will soon begin communicating it with coaches, players and media members during camp visits. Former NFL vice president officiating Mike Pereira, who now works for Fox Sports, first revealed the information after attending the league's annual officiating clinic last week.

I know it seems that officials are always calling these particular penalties (defensive holding and illegal contact), but in reality they occurred on 1.6 percent of passes in the 2013 regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (285 calls in 18,136 attempts). The chart, meanwhile, shows the range of those penalties per team. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs each were called for 16, while the New Orleans Saints had only two against them. (The Seahawks were among five teams with 12.)

In the process, NFL teams set these league records:

  • 46.8 combined points per game

  • 697 combined yards per game

  • 471.2 combined passing yards per game

  • 1,338 touchdowns

  • 86.0 average passer rating

  • 804 touchdown passes

  • 24 games with a 400-yard passer

We haven't yet heard from officials on how they will apply these points of emphasis, but typically the presumption is that they will be called more strictly than the previous season. Hopefully, consistency is also a part of their charge, but regardless, it appears pass defenders will face a choice of increased penalties or providing less resistance to receivers.

For those who need a refresher: Regarding illegal contact, defenders are not allowed to use their arms or hands to restrict receivers when they are 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, as long as the quarterback is in the pocket with the ball. Defenders also can't hit receivers in the back within that 5-yard zone. Violation of these mandates leads to a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down.

Defensive holding, meanwhile, refers to a defender grabbing an eligible receiver or his jersey with his hands, and also prohibits defenders from using their arms to cut off the receiver or guide him in another direction. Like illegal contact, it carries a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. We can probably expect officials to apply special focus to grabbing jerseys, a move crafty cornerbacks have learned and refined in order to hide it from officials.

A third point of emphasis might serve as partial balance. Officials have been asked to pay attention to offensive pass interference (OPI), especially when receivers push off defenders at the top of the route. Last season, OPI was called only 74 times leaguewide and no more than six times against any one team. It was also one of the most inconsistently called penalties in the NFL; since-retired referee Scott Green's crew recorded almost twice (12) as many as the next-most frequent group.

It's easy to conclude that the NFL wants to maintain and perhaps enhance the advantages it has given offenses in recent years. All indications, after all, are that high-scoring throwing offenses are more entertaining to the masses than physical pass defenses. I hope it's not that simple.

It would be nice to think that at least part of this initiative is to secure consistency where it's available. There isn't as much judgment involved in illegal contact or defensive holding as, say, defensive pass interference. The rulebook allows for some incidental contact beyond 5 yards, but otherwise the stipulations are clear: Hands off after that 5-yard marker and don't grab receivers during the route.

What players and coaches want most from refs is clarity: What are you and aren't you going to call? In theory, teams will adjust accordingly. We'll see.