How Increased Illegal Contact Penalties Could Impact the AFC South in 2014

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How Increased Illegal Contact Penalties Could Impact the AFC South in 2014
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When Peyton Manning struggles, the NFL loosens the reins. 

That's probably an oversimplification of an aesthetic war that the NFL is always fighting. But it's not a surprise that stricter illegal contact rules surfaced after the Patriots manhandled Colts receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. Now, after Manning's Broncos were whipped in the Super Bowl by a stifling Seahawks defense, the NFL has gone back to the well. 

Technically, the rules have not changed. The NFL has just begun to emphasize the rules that were already there. Mike Tanier's column on Sports On Earth looked at just how emphasized these points of emphasis were over the past two weeks of preseason games. The numbers are pretty stark for proponents of a balanced game.

Defensive Penalties in First Two Weeks of Preseason
2013 2014
Defensive Pass Interference 34 33
Defensive Holding 20 100
Illegal Contact 5 49

Sports On Earth

Yes, an adjustment will occur at some point. Every sport is, at its core, an organism that evolves over time. The problem is that even if we adjust what we are seeing down, the numbers we are seeing are so far off the standard deviation of normal that an increase in flags will persist. 

Regardless of how simple-minded the change is, it's likely here to stay. And it will make an impact on every team. The Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder claims the rule change could hurt the Colts more than most teams because of how they cover receivers. 

Because defensive holding and illegal contact are the two big risers, I thought I'd take a look at how each team in the AFC South has fared with these penalties over the past two years. The NFL averages over that time frame have been fairly constant. There were 286 of these penalties (combined) in 2013 and 290 in 2012. That means the average team saw about nine illegal contact and defensive holding penalties combined in each of the last two seasons. The tables below will list out every player who picked up more than one of these flags for the AFC South team in question.

Houston Texans

Texans 2012-2013 Illegal Contact/Holding Penalties
Player Penalties
Brice McCain 9
Brandon Harris 4
Johnathan Joseph 3
Bradie James 2
Total 24

Football Outsiders

Brice McCain took his act to Pittsburgh, but as we discussed earlier this offseason, Brandon Harris is as penalty prone as they come, and he could find himself a frequent target of flags under the new rules. 

The Texans tended to commit more of these penalties than most teams, but they also played a lot more man coverage than most teams. Especially in 2013, when Wade Phillips desperately tried to manufacture a pass rush from a unit that had none of it outside of J.J. Watt. 

Changing to Romeo Crennel's 3-4 and drafting Jadeveon Clowney should, in theory, help Houston play more zone coverage. That leaves Harris as the only major issue.

Indianapolis Colts

Colts 2012-2013 Illegal Contact/Holding Penalties
Player Penalties
Cassius Vaughn 6
Vontae Davis 5
Greg Toler 3
Darius Butler 3
Jerrell Freeman 2
Total 27

Football Outsiders

All three of the Colts' main cornerbacks picked up three of these penalties in 2013, and Holder has a point when he talks up how much more effective the Colts were when they played tight. 

Given how poor the safety play is in Indianapolis, I don't think there's any reason to not expect them to be above average on holding and illegal contact penalties again this year. They had almost an extra NFL average season's worth of these penalties in 2012 and 2013. And Robert Mathis won't be along to speed things up for the first four games, either. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jaguars 2012-2013 Illegal Contact/Holding Penalties
Player Penalties
Rashean Mathis 2
Derek Cox 2
Total 11

Football Outsiders

For a team using Seattle's defense as a model, the Jaguars have been very clean the last two seasons. Of course, just because opponents say that Richard Sherman is too physical doesn't mean it gets called that way. Gus Bradley's unit last year was even sharper; it had just four illegal contact or defensive holding calls all season.

Now, some of that is because of the game scripts the Jaguars faced. They rarely had to play an offense that was in catch-up mode. Still, that's an obscenely low number. 

How this unit shakes out probably depends a lot on how many subtle grabs Jacksonville (and Seattle) got away with that will now be called. Dwayne Gratz certainly struggled with the emphasis against the Bears in Week 2 of the preseason.

Tennessee Titans

Titans 2012-2013 Illegal Contact/Holding Penalties
Player Penalties
Alterraun Verner 4
Zach Brown 2
Total 12

Football Outsiders

Like the Jaguars, the Titans also committed a very low number of these penalties over the past two seasons. Alterraun Verner accounted for most of those totals, and he's now in Tampa Bay.

However, Ray Horton's units have tended to be closer to the league average. The 2013 Browns picked up nine of these penalties while the 2012 Cardinals notched 13. Given how often Horton uses base personnel and how much he likes to blitz the middle linebackers, I think the Titans are probably in for the biggest increase on this list.

Well, at least unless Derrick Morgan suddenly blossoms.

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