By Jason Hirschhorn
Without question, the dominant narrative of the 2014 NFL preseason was the inundation of yellow laundry on the football field. Without passing any new rules, the NFL re-emphasized existing ones in the hopes of removing certain types of contact from its game. For a league that has already done everything short of bubble wrapping its star quarterbacks and surrounding them with caution tape, the suggestion of removing even more physicality from the game was met coolly.
Those keeping tally in the preseason were alarmed to discover just how monumental the number of defensive-holding and illegal-contact calls had increased. Through the first three weeks -- the only games usually to feature starters -- NFL referees flagged 146 defensive holds and 84 illegal contact penalties. Without accounting for any of the calls from the final week of exhibition games, those figures represent an increase of 384 percent and 467 percent, respectively, over their totals from the entire 2013 preseason.
To recap: The league allows for contact between the defensive players and the receiver within five yards on the line of scrimmage. Those defenders are allowed to contact, or chuck, the receiver so long as that contact is "continuous and unbroken within the five-yard zone." Regardless of how the rule is written, tape study of any NFL game from recent years will reveal defensive backs holding contact beyond the five-yard limit. At its essence, that's what the NFL's re-emphasis aims to undo. Again, these aren't new rules.
But this could be a problem for the Seattle Seahawks. With a roster full of tall, long-armed cornerbacks headlined by Richard Sherman, the Seahawks earned their emerald-green stripes by knocking around receivers and leaving rangy All-Pro safety Earl Thomas to clean up anyone who happened to make it through the barrage. In Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle's defense spent the majority of the night in Cover 1 and Cover 3, both single-high safety coverages. This allowed Sherman and his fellow cornerbacks more opportunities to get physical with Broncos receivers. The results speak for themselves; Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker combined for 117 receiving yards, while Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas grew increasingly frustrated with the downfield contact as the game wore on.
It's impossible to say definitively whether that Super Bowl pushed the NFL to address its contact rules (or, as conspiracy theorist Richard Sherman suggested, fantasy football), but had the referees called that game as they have during the 2014 preseason, Peyton Manning would have had little trouble carving up Seattle's secondary. Even on an off night, Manning possesses the accuracy and timing to hit his targets with regularity on comeback patterns and in routes. Those passes often result in the defensive back making contact with the receiver a smidgen or more before the ball arrives. In the past, referees would let many of those go, but during the preseason they were flagged nearly every time.
Like Manning, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has tremendous ball placement and hits his receivers just as they break away from defenders. Green Bay features one the league's deepest receiving corps, with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb among the best in the league at their respective roles. If the Packers force the Seahawks' cornerbacks to move through their receivers to make a play on a ball thrown on a comeback or pattern over the middle, the referees could take the game out of Seattle's hands. Alternatively, if the "Legion of Boom" concedes and gives Green Bay pass catchers room to breathe, Rodgers will find them and connect for big plays.
In that way, how defensive holding and illegal contact is officiated is the most determinative factor of Thursday night's game and perhaps the rest of the season. If instead of raining flags on any and all contact made after five yards, the referees allow the Seahawks to aggressively pursue passes, the defending champs will be difficult to unseat. Even the best NFL offenses will struggle to break free of Seattle's single-high-safety death grip.
But that approach requires some leniency from the officials, something the league hasn't offered thus far in 2014. If the refs indeed take all downfield contact out of the game, Thursday could be the first of many long, frustrating nights for the Seahawks. The textbook thrashing Seattle laid down on Denver last February will no longer be feasible, and offenses like Green Bay's will take advantage. The Seahawks have other tools at their disposal, but they're a far less dangerous team minus the freedom for their defensive backs to bang up against receivers.
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Jason Hirschhorn is a contributing writer for Sports on Earth and covers the NFL for SB Nation and the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Company. Follow him on Twitter at @jbhirschhorn.