Physical play, technique and the ability to challenge receivers throughout the route stem.
These are the basic skills we look for in defensive backs when they are matched up in coverage at the NFL level.
But after three weeks of preseason games that were littered with penalties due to the NFL’s new emphasis on defensive-contact rules, where does the league draw the line?
Preseason football is tough to watch at times. We all understand that.
The games lack the structure of the regular-season environment, and the play on the field often fails to meet professional standards once the starters take a seat for the night.
However, this preseason was especially tough to watch given the amount of defensive penalties that slowed the pace of the game and made us question the league’s focus on defensive holding and illegal contact.
A hand sitting low on a receiver’s hip, some contact through the route stem and the aggressive style of play we expect from defensive backs at the break point when they drive to the ball.
I’m talking about a physical brand of football that allows the secondary to dictate the flow of the game and challenge receivers—consistently—when they line up.
Is there going to be contact down the field? Of course there is when guys are competing and playing at top speed.
They will bump, grab and tug on that jersey to get in a position to make a play on the ball.
“Veteran” techniques, as I call them, to attack the chestplate on the receiver and take control of the route all the way down the field.
Back in Week 2, Chicago Bears safety Ryan Mundy was called for defensive holding when he matched up versus Jacksonville Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis on the 7-route (corner).
There was some contact after the jam (on both sides), but is this a legitimate call? One that erased a nice finish by Mundy when he played the pocket to get the ball out?
The NFL views this as a penalty. And given the emphasis it is putting on defensive contact this preseason, that's fine.
But all I see here are two guys competing to make a play down the field.
There have been multiple times this preseason when I had to rewind the tape and search for a reason, an excuse really, to agree with a holding or illegal contact call.
The defensive penalties this summer have seemed somewhat soft, suspect, almost forced at times.
And it’s tough to grade down a player when he is using the proper technique to mirror a release or pin a receiver to the boundary.
Maybe the league’s point here is to make an example out of players during the exhibition schedule in hopes that some of it carries over into the regular season.
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, addressed the amount of preseason penalties on the NFL Network's Total Access Postgame show (via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com) after the Philadelphia Eagles-Pittsburgh Steelers game this past Thursday night.
"We expected it. I think there's an adjustment period for our officials, for the coaches and our players," Blandino said. "When the regular season rolls around, I think everybody will be on the same page and I think you'll see those foul totals go down."
Players will have to adapt. There is no question about it.
And that’s why I can agree with Blandino’s comment on an “adjustment period” that should play out in a positive manner when the regular season starts.
For defensive backs, this is similar to targeting rules. The majority of safeties have adapted their style of play when driving downhill to a receiver in the middle of the field.
Think along those same lines with defensive backs now having to adjust their hand placement versus the release or when transitioning out of their pedal to avoid contact down the field.
My hope here is that the high-level football we see during the regular season—complete with deep game plans and scouting reports—will help in reducing some of the ridiculous calls that have been on display these past three weeks.
That’s when the top talent, players such as Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Joe Haden, will continue to showcase their Pro Bowl technique, footwork and coverage skill sets while still playing aggressive football in the passing game.
If the NFL wants to tighten up the game, or cater to the offensive side of the ball, then defensive players will just have to alter their approach to Sundays.
And I believe they will. Because that's what good pros do.
But the league still has to give them some room to compete. That's only fair.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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