As was spelled out by a visiting NFL officiating crew earlier this Packers training camp, there is an emphasis being placed in the preseason on one-on-one contact between combatants and what may or may not be acceptable. General manager Ted Thompson called it a “point of interest” during a Tuesday press conference at Lambeau Field.
“The league has deemed it appropriate to try and cut back on some of the contact on the outside,” he said.
Through two preseason games, the Packers have taken notice. They rank among the top 10 in the league in defensive holding penalties and also have incurred two defensive pass interference and two illegal use of hands calls. Last year in four preseason games, they had just two defensive holding penalties, one defensive pass interference and one illegal use of hands.
“I think on one of the plays the referee said to me, ‘Get your hands off of him,’” said Micah Hyde, whose transition to safety this season has seen him less in one-on-one coverage over the first two games. “It’s difficult because as a (defensive back) you want to get your hands on a receiver and try to control him, but I guess they’re trying to emphasize against that.”
Of course, the preseason and regular season are two different animals. So are the regular season and the postseason. Had officials called the Packers’ Wild Card game against the San Francisco 49ers in January as closely as Saturday’s game against the Rams, cornerback Davon House might have had three or four penalties.
Fans might remember House being targeted by Colin Kaepernick in the passing game after Sam Shields left early with an injury. In particular, House played wide receiver Michael Crabtree aggressively on two end zone plays in which Crabtree expressed his disgust to officials after no call was made. Instead of two potential touchdowns and a much different game, the 49ers had to settle for two field goals and just a 6-0 lead in the first quarter.
“Usually in the playoffs, they let a lot of things go because it’s the playoffs,” said House. “If it’s the playoffs again this year and we’re playing a team and I’m out there, I don’t think they’ll call it. But if it’s regular season, they might call one or two of those flags.
“At the end of the day, you still have to play football. If they’re going to call it, they’re going to call it.”
So, does House think there will be a similar change this year going from preseason to regular season?
“There will be a huge difference. There’s no way they’re going to throw 30 flags a game,” he said. “They’re doing this just to kind of scare us, just to show that they’re serious about the rules.”
Offensively, the Packers also have been dinged for two illegal-use-of-hands penalties. One, committed by left tackle David Bakhtiari, nullified a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson from Aaron Rodgers. After the 10-yard penalty, the Packers had to settle for a field goal.
“This is my own opinion, but I believe that there is a message being sent this preseason with the number of flags,” said Rodgers. “But I don’t see how you can continue to ‘ref’ it the same way. As we’ve seen, there are so many different calls that can be called on every single play, whether it’s offensive holding or illegal contact or what have you, some of the areas of emphasis. The spirit of the hands-to-the-face rule I think needs a second look because if a guy’s blocking and a defender ducks his head or, vice-versa, a guy is rushing and an offensive lineman ducks his head, I think a hand that gets taken off quickly to the head or facemask, the intent is not to harm or to cause harm to the player in violation of the player safety stuff that they want to cut back on. So, I think they potentially need to take a look at it. The numbers are definitely up from last year’s regular season but that’s what they usually do. They emphasize things, they call them, and then you get to the regular season and you usually don’t see as many of those plays called.”
Earlier in training camp, Rodgers had said that he thought the passing game would be called a little more tightly this year. He even joked that the visiting crew that day might want to join the Packers in the Pacific Northwest for the opener against the Seattle Seahawks and their aggressive secondary.
Like the players, even the officials — and the league, for that matter — are adjusting.
“I think it’s a wait-and-see game,” said Nelson. “I think what we’ve been told is that they’re going to review every call throughout the preseason and see what to do. I think it’s a little extreme right now. I mean, we can’t have games with 35 penalties. I think it’s going to be both ways. They won’t call as many and guys will adjust. So, you’ve got a lot of young guys out there playing and trying to be aggressive and trying to make plays so that might be part of it, but I don’t think anyone offensively or defensively wants to play in a game with 35 or more penalties.”
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com