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Thursday, December 19, 2013
Inside Slant: Rise in defensive penalties

By Kevin Seifert

If you were watching Monday night's game at Ford Field, you saw a neat package of why so many players, coaches and fans are frustrated over how NFL officials manage the passing game.

With 3:34 remaining in the second quarter, you saw a pass interference call against Detroit Lions defensive back Don Carey -- whose contact with Baltimore Ravens receiver Marlon Brown consisted mostly of falling on top of him after Brown stumbled. The 24-yard penalty set up a Ravens field goal. (Referee Carl Cheffers explained that Brown's jersey was held and his movement restricted, a dubious claim based on the replay.)

On the other side of the field, on the same play, you saw Lions cornerback Jonte Green blatantly grab and hold Ravens receiver Torrey Smith beyond five yards from scrimmage. No penalty was called.

Meanwhile, on third down with 2:01 remaining in the second quarter, Cheffers' crew made no call when Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb executed a classic "armbar" move to restrict the left arm of Lions receiver Kris Durham in the end zone. The pass fell incomplete, and without a penalty call, the Lions settled for a 40-yard field goal.

"That's an armbar!" ESPN analyst Jon Gruden exclaimed on the broadcast. "That's officiating 101 there. … The magnitude of these games is so significant that I just think we need to take a look at how pass interference is impacting them."

Those calls, and non-calls, were the latest in a string of high-profile plays involving the potential for pass interference in recent weeks. A questionable call two weeks ago set the New England Patriots up for a winning touchdown against the Cleveland Browns. The same day, the Ravens benefited from a pass interference call against Minnesota Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who appeared to have no contact with falling tight end Dennis Pitta while the ball was in the air.

It's impossible to explain why pass interference, holding or illegal contact is called in some cases and not in others. Inconsistency is simply a human trait. Generally speaking, though, NFL officials are aggressively utilizing penalties designed to limit defenders in the passing game.

The chart, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, shows how the combined totals of those three penalties has risen significantly over the past five seasons, from 1.40 per game in 2009 to 1.75 so far in 2013. That's a rise of about 20 percent, attributable in part to a modest rise in passing attempts (33.25 per game in 2009 vs. 35.57 in 2013). Keep in mind, however, that contemporary defenders are far less aggressive now than they were even five years ago as they have absorbed the greater likelihood of penalties.

My general thought in these matters is to get used to it. The NFL knows that successful passing games sell to the masses better than tough defenses do. So it makes sense to expect calls more often than not when there is contact.

That mentality, however, has led to too many calls on plays when there was no real contact between defender and receiver. The pendulum has swung too far and requires some recalibration.