How to Get Away with Cheating in Today's NFL

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers is unable to come up with a fourth down catch in the endzone late in the fourth quarter against Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Players trying to gain an unfair advantage in today's NFL are most obvious about it on a passing play. On almost every throw, defensive backs and receivers will take liberties with pass interference laws. Linemen have also turned the common hold into an art form.

But just how do NFL players get away with bending the rules to a breaking point? Sometimes it is subtlety on the part of the offender, and on others it is incompetent officiating that prevents a penalty.

For a famous play that combines both of these elements, look no further than last season's Super Bowl. The non-call in the fourth quarter that allowed the Baltimore Ravens to beat the San Francisco 49ers is a great example of permitted cheating.

Pass Interference As a Two-Way Street

The 49ers were facing 4th-and-goal at the five-yard line. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick targeted wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was promptly placed in a vice-like grip by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

It almost defied belief that Smith got away with this level of interference. One of the reasons he did was the position of his eyes at different stages of the play.

In the first shot, Smith is looking directly at Crabtree coming out of his break.

Smith is still eyeing Crabtree as he brings his outside arm up to clamp on the receiver.

Even as he locks that arm onto Crabtree, Smith is still staring down the receiver and not the ball.

Once he brings his other arm underneath, Smith is in violation of the rules. This is as blatant as holding gets.

But what Smith does next is significant. He turns his eyes towards the quarterback and the ball.

Why is this important? As a general rule of thumb, interference and holding is usually called against defensive backs when they have not even bothered to look at the ball.

By eyeing the throw, cover men can contend they are playing the ball instead of the man. For the canny defensive back, timing that look back at the ball just right can mean getting away with any amount of holding beforehand.

That sly manipulation, along with oblivious or generous officiating, helped Smith decide the Super Bowl in Baltimore's favor.

Of course, it is not only defensive backs who stretch interference laws to their limits. Wide receivers are certainly not above finding an advantage to complete a reception.

In Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees connected with Marques Colston for a 20-yard touchdown. The scoring play helped Brees tie Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games throwing a touchdown.

But as Michael David Smith of ProFootaballTalk.com pointed out, that distinction was not gained fairly. That is because Colston got away with a pretty obvious and strong push-off.

As the ball approaches the end zone, Colston simply begins to lean into Packers safety Morgan Burnett.

That lean soon becomes a forceful shove.

That leaves Colston wide open to complete an easy score.

A closer looks shows Colston tipping himself into Burnett in full view of an official. Of course, an experienced wideout can simply claim he is following the direction of the pass.

But that cannot explain or excuse the leverage Colston gains by pressing down on Burnett's shoulder and forcing him to the floor.

In a league geared to points and passing yards, receivers are often given the benefit of the doubt and room to abuse the rules.

Holding and illegal use of hands is becoming more common in coverage. However, it is still most frequent along the line of scrimmage. Again, those guilty are on both sides of the ball.

The Art of Holding

Every NFL fan knows holding could be called far more often than it is. What a lot of fans might not always acknowledge is that holding is not an infraction limited strictly to offensive linemen.

Defensive members of the trenches seeking unfair advantages gained some publicity this season, thanks to the New York Giants. Big Blue were preparing to battle the San Francisco 49ers on the road in Week 6.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride stoked the fires of rivalry when he publicly lamented the tactics of Justin Smith. Gilbride claimed the veteran San Francisco defensive end consistently escapes punishment for holding offensive blockers.

While Gilbride may have been trying to influence the officiating ahead of a big game, his accusations were not entirely without merit.

Consider this play against the St. Louis Rams in Week 10. Smith uses holding to occupy two blockers to aid a twist by outside linebacker Aldon Smith.

Notice the initial underarm hook by Smith. This gives him excellent leverage and the ability to lift one blocker into another.

That effect becomes clearer as the play develops. Smith has hooked the guard and held on, driving his man into the offensive tackle and preventing him from picking up Aldon Smith's rush.

The play would result in an easy sack and an eight-yard loss for the Rams. While Smith is a stellar veteran, there can be no doubt he and the 49ers are able to gain a pass-rushing advantage thanks to these tactics.

Battle-hardened defenders like Smith may simply counter these accusations by pointing to the number of times offensive linemen get away with holding.

That is certainly the view of Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. The eight-year pro accused the Pittsburgh Steelers O-line of "getting away with murder," according to Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com.

A play from Pittsburgh's Week 8 win over the Washington Redskins shows what Tuck may have been referring to. Guard Ramon Foster (73) and tackle Mike Adams (76) are set to block defensive end Jarvis Jenkins and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.

As soon as the ball is snapped, Foster and Adams waste no time holding. Adams is the most flagrant offender, corralling Kerrigan in something akin to a choke-hold.

A closer view of Foster's way of slowing Jenkins reveals how brazen the Steelers were about holding during this play. The fist handful of shirt should be a dead giveaway that Jenkins is being held.

The Steelers were able to successfully get away with it because of how quickly Foster and Adams used their hands on the inside.

In particular, notice how Foster has both his hands on the inside of Jenkins. This obscures his holding from the official. This is a common method for concealing illegal blocking.

A rivalry between college stars Jadeveon Clowney and Antonio "Tiny" Richardson reveals how offensive and defensive linemen view the holding debate.

Clowney, a star defensive end at South Carolina, accused Tennessee left tackle Richardson of consistent holding, according to Chase Goodbread of NFL.coms' NFL Draft 365:

He is the best at holding and getting away with it. But he does a good job with it. If you don't get called for it, it's not a hold, so I respect it 100 percent.

Goodbread subsequently reported Richardson's retort. Richardson responded by arguing that is how some of the best pros have done it, and he also revealed the key to escaping a penalty:

"I think some of the best offensive linemen can hold and get away with it. Jonathan Ogden, Anthony Munoz, all those guys could hold and get away with it," Richardson said. "I'll take it as a compliment. But sometimes you've got to stop crying and move on."

The Steelers certainly proved that point against the Redskins. They also showed that there can be no half measures in bending the rules.

They held the entire right-side of Washington's defensive line on this play. That allowed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to fire an 18-yard strike to wide receiver Antonio Brown.

For many, the word "cheating" may be too strong for the examples given here. Many, including players and coaches themselves, might consider these tactics merely gamesmanship.

But whatever label is used, there is no denying today's players know how to manipulate the rules in a pass-first league.

All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass


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