Inside Slant: Rise of offensive pass interference penalties

For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Report, follow this link.

This week, I tweeted a request to nominate a defensive penalty that changed the course of a game this season. I used the responses to inform Thursday's post on the connection between those calls and passing efficiency, but enough of you were so outraged by a particular call against an offensive player that I couldn't resist addressing it in the Week 7 Officiating Report.

By now, it's likely you've seen the play. Referee Craig Wrolstad's crew called St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook for offensive pass interference (OPI) late in the second quarter of the Rams' eventual 31-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The penalty, an under-discussed point of emphasis by the NFL this season, wiped out a 21-yard gain that would have put the Rams in scoring position just before the two-minute warning.

The league's intent in emphasizing OPI is to eliminate potential receiving targets from pushing defenders away at the top of the route, a common technique that developed over the years from big receivers and tight ends. When you watch the replay, however, you see Cook's only motion was to swipe away a jam attempt from 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox. Cook did not extend his arms, and Cox remained in tight coverage after Cook cut to his left.

Appearing this week on the NFL Network, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino acknowledged the call was wrong. Referring to back judge Lee Dyer, Blandino said: "He's got Cook extending his arms into the defenders and, in his judgment, pushing off to create separation. ... That's not the case when you look at the sideline angle. [Cook] is jammed by the defender and used his hands to get release. That's legal."

Leaguewide, officials called 48 OPI penalties through six weeks. At that rate, the NFL will experience nearly double the OPI penalties it had in 2013. Such is the price, at least in the short term, for top-down attempts to root out a particular technique -- much as the league has tried to minimize helmet-to-helmet contact in previous years. Penalty figures go up and, occasionally, over-attentive officials see violations when there are none.

If you're a team with big receivers and concerned about OPI, you will want to avoid the referee crews of Ed Hochuli (7) and Bill Leavy (5), who have called the most OPI penalties this season, per the penalty database maintained by ESPN Stats & Information. On the other hand, the crews of Clete Blakeman, Gene Steratore and John Parry have called one apiece.

So it's not surprising to see the size of the four NFL receivers who lead the NFL with two OPI penalties after six weeks this season. In addition to Cook, who is 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, the list includes the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240), the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones (6-3, 220) and the New England Patriots' Brandon LaFell (6-3, 210).

(LaFell leads the league with three OPI penalties after receiving one in Thursday night's Week 7 opener.)

Overall, the San Francisco 49ers were hardest hit by this emphasis through six weeks, having been flagged five times. The Rams, Patriots and Houston Texans had four apiece. (The Patriots have five through seven games.)

Note: As always, the bar graph accompanying this post displays the overall frequency of penalty calls from each of the league's 17 officiating crews.