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An official's penalty flag flies during the first half of an NFL preseason football game between the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars in Chicago, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Charles Rex Arbogast, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

Craig: Points of emphasis cause NFL flags to fly

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG
  • Star Tribune
  • August 20, 2014 - 1:22 AM

As the yellow penalty flags rain down at about twice their frequency from last preseason, NFL defenders are left wondering — yet again — if these yearly “points of emphasis” will ever reach the point of overemphasis at league headquarters.

“I don’t know about that,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s always going to be an offensive game. That’s what fans like to see. If you come out to our practices in Mankato, if the offense throws a deep ball in a walkthrough, the fans go crazy. They love it.”

A year ago, a record 11,985 points were scored. The average per game (46.8) also broke the record of 46.5, which was set in 1948, when the league played only five games a week over 12 weeks.

And yet the NFL charged into this preseason with points of emphasis that focused on illegal downfield contact, defensive holding and offensive pass interference. The league also is experimenting with an eighth on-field official for the preseason only. His primary job: Look for defensive holding from the offensive side of the ball.

So far, mission accomplished.

Preseason games are averaging 23.6 penalties. Last preseason: 12.7.

In 33 preseason games, there have been 111 defensive holding calls and 56 illegal contact calls. Monday night in Washington, the Browns had five defensive holding calls in the first quarter, including two on one play. The Redskins had two defensive holding calls, one of which led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Washington bench.

Smith has an old-school football mentality that he once thought he could unleash despite all consequences. He no longer thinks that way after two seasons and a rookie year that included multiple fines and an ejection for making contact with an official.

“The league makes it more difficult every year, but you have to change the way you play, whether you like the rules or not, and, trust me, there are rules I don’t like,” Smith said. “This year is kind of like the big hits [on defenseless receivers] that they cracked down on a couple years ago.

“I came into the league, I was like, `I’m just going to hit everybody. I don’t care. And then you get a penalty. And then you get another penalty. And then you start hurting your team. And then they fine you. And now you see guys lowering their target areas [on defenseless receivers].”

On the other hand, Smith thinks an emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding could harm defenses more than the efforts to eliminate hits on defenseless receivers.

“If they carry this into the regular season, it could be tougher because, man, if you can’t even touch a receiver, that’s difficult,” Smith said. “But you just have to try and do what they tell you.”

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a defensive-minded coach whose position expertise is teaching defensive backs, doesn’t appear to be the least bit worried.

“We don’t coach penalties,” said Zimmer, whose team has 17 penalties, tied for fourth fewest in the league. “We coach to play within the rules.”

In fact, Zimmer said he appreciates the NFL clarifying the rule. Whereas officials used to allow a certain amount of hand fighting between receivers and defenders, now it appears all contact initiated by the defender is off limits.

“When there’s ambiguity in the rule, or you’re not sure, that makes it difficult,” said Zimmer, whose team has only four illegal contact penalties and one defensive holding infraction. “But they’re pretty clear on this.”

On the flip side, receivers couldn’t be happier. And, yes, they’re already working on tactics that will draw even more penalties on those poor defenders.

“Of course,” Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. “It’s always good to get that [penalty] on a defender. It’s kind of natural that you work on that. You get downfield and you try to make a move because he’s going to grab you. And we’re hoping to get that flag. It’s been going good in the preseason.”

 

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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