Last night’s preseason game between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks was ugly, and not just for Seattle’s atrocious pass blocking.
The stars of this game weren’t the established veterans showcasing that they still have what it takes, or the rookies and free agents proving their worth. Instead, the referees claimed the spotlight, looming large over the game with a flurry of flags.
“When you have 25 penalties, it’s going to be kind of messy,” head coach Pete Carroll observed afterwards. “That kind of shrouded the game, I think, from both sides.”
While the teams split those penalties almost equally — 12 for Denver and 13 for Seattle — the team racking up the most penalties against rough secondary play was a huge surprise.
When NFL officials announced a renewed emphasis against illegal contact and defensive holding, everyone from Seahawks beat reporters, to rival homers, to Pete Carroll himself, assumed that this was a reaction to the Legion of Boom’s physical style of play. In the Seahawks’ preseason opener, however, the Broncos repeatedly suffered for their overly aggressive pass coverage. In fact, the Seahawks only drew one penalty for rough pass coverage (a pass interference call), while the Broncos collected five, including three calls for defensive holding, one for illegal contact, and a flag for pass interference.
The first such penalty was a defensive holding call against Denver’s new safety T.J. Ward. With 12:19 on the clock in the first quarter, Russell Wilson took the snap and rolled out to his right on a play action bootleg. He threw for Jermaine Kearse 20 yards down field, but Kearse hit the turf after a getting tangled up with Ward.
— wTVPC (@wtvpc) August 6, 2014
With 12:28 remaining in the second quarter, the referees offered their second glimpse into the crackdown against defensive holding. Wilson took the snap for a pass play and promptly watched his offensive line crumble. Again rolling out to his right, Wilson elongated the play only to throw the ball away. Cornerback Aqib Talib appeared beaten by Kearse off of the line of scrimmage, and somewhere off of the broadcast screen earned his own defensive holding call.
On the very next play, the referees flagged Broncos’ linebacker Nate Irving for the game’s first illegal contact. Irving picked up tight end Zach Miller in coverage and ever-so-lightly laid hands on Miller seven yards past the line of scrimmage. Apparently, even this delicate engagement outside of the five-yard buffer zone will risk a penalty.
The fourth flag for aggressive pass coverage came with 7:19 left in the second quarter. Once again, Wilson was flushed from the collapsing pocket and bought time with his legs, running to his right. Wilson targeted receiver Doug Baldwin in the back corner of the end zone. Baldwin couldn’t pull the ball down, however, with linebacker Danny Trevathan offering Baldwin a soft shove to the chest before the ball’s arrival. The refs flagged Trevathan for pass interference on the play.
It was not until the third quarter, when most Seahawks starters had traded in their helmets for ball caps, that Seattle drew its first flag for rough pass coverage. At the 11:47 mark, backup quarterback Brock Osweiler threw for receiver Nathan Palmer on a go route down the right sideline. In coverage, cornerback Jeremy Lane turned his head to locate the ball, but appeared to keep his outside hand on Palmer’s torso. The refs called Lane for pass interference.
— Denver Post Broncos (@PostBroncos) August 8, 2014
On the second play of the fourth quarter, the Broncos drew their final call for defensive holding. This one’s hard to see without NFL’s Preseason Live service offering coach’s film, but it looks like safety Duke Ihenacho is lined up in man coverage against a Seahawks tight end (Morrell Presley?) at the top of the screen. The pass by Terrelle Pryor was complete to Arceto Clark, but Ihenacho was called for defensive holding in his coverage against the Hawks’ tight end. This, too, was a relatively lengthy pass play, with Pryor climbing the pocket to avoid pressure after a five- or six-step drop.
Of the Broncos’ five penalties for overly aggressive pass coverage, four took place on plays where the Seahawks’ quarterbacks extended the play with their legs. This might be the secret to how the Seahawks surprise everyone and actually benefit from the league’s crackdown on handsy defenses.
Unlike 2012 Robert Griffin III and other quarterbacks known for their ability to run, Wilson infrequently runs the ball past the line of scrimmage. As Broncos’ defensive tackle Terrance Knighton explained before Super Bowl XLVIII, Wilson “wants to get out to this right and throw.”
Instead of escaping a collapsing pocket and looking to take off, Wilson tends to extend plays with his speed and Tarkentonian spin moves. By extending the play, Wilson necessarily requires opposing secondaries to maintain tight coverage for elongated periods. Secondaries often fail to meet this challenge.
When they failed in the preseason opener, the Broncos often attempted to make up for the shortcomings of their elongated pass coverage with ticky tacky grabs and nudges — exactly the kinds of undisciplined tactics the referees look to penalize in 2014.