Birds defenders must come to grips with new rules

"Rules are rules, and you've got to follow them," Eagles coach Chip Kelly (left) said ofthe NFL's emphasis this season on calling penalties for illegal contact.
"Rules are rules, and you've got to follow them," Eagles coach Chip Kelly (left) said ofthe NFL's emphasis this season on calling penalties for illegal contact. (RON CORTES / Staff)
Posted: August 18, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - It's a new world, one that increasingly marginalizes defensive players. But if certain Eagles don't adjust to restrictions on contact downfield and use of the hands on the line, they will become refugees of the offense-friendly NFL.

And there's nothing Chip Kelly or any NFL coach can do to save them.

"You don't have to agree with the speed limit, but if the cop's out there with a speed gun, you better take your foot off the gas or he's going to pull you over," Kelly said after the Eagles fell to the New England Patriots, 42-35, in the preseason. "It's the bottom line. Rules are rules, and you've got to follow them."

The Eagles were penalized 15 times on Friday night and 11 were on the defense. Some of the flags were declined or offset by New England penalties, but two were for illegal contact and three were for illegal use of the hands. There were also three holding penalties and one for pass interference.

The Patriots were just as careless with 13 penalties, although their starting defense didn't have as many problems. Their reserves were called for illegal contact once and for illegal use of hands twice. If anything, it was the Patriots offensive linemen who struggled with illegal use of hands, drawing three flags.

But the illegal-contact enforcement - a point of emphasis this year, many believe, because of the Seattle Seahawks secondary's clutching and grabbing on the way to a Super Bowl title - has plagued the Eagles.

The Eagles, like every other team, have been briefed by NFL officials this preseason. This is illegal contact, as described in the rules video: "Defenders cannot initiate contact with eligible receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage when the quarterback is in the pocket with the ball."

The definition of the rule would seem to limit grabby cornerbacks such as the Birds' Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, but neither has been flagged yet. The preseason sample is a small one, though. Brandon Boykin has been called for holding - illegal contact's sister penalty - three times already.

"If you're past the five-yard mark, no matter what, there is no leeway - not 51/2, not six yards," Boykin said. "If your hand is on a receiver, a flag is going up. It's hard for a defensive back."

Boykin said that he expects teaching proper technique to be a point of emphasis when the team resumes practice Sunday. But Kelly said his defensive coaches haven't taught any other way.

"We don't teach people to grab receivers after five yards downfield, and if that becomes your go-to move and that's what you've got to do, you can't play," Kelly said. "You've got to figure that out."

Williams has said that he isn't going to alter his way of defending and that he expects officials will adjust to his game. The seven-year veteran isn't blessed with great athleticism, but he has survived in the NFL because of his knack for using angles as leverage.

He has also mastered the art of using his hands. Williams and Bradley were signed as free agents last offseason because the Eagles wanted longer outside cornerbacks to keep up with ever-growing receivers. But their style of defense may not be ideal for the new rule changes.

There's an "overemphasis on referees having to meet a quota on flags," Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. He added: "It's going to take some time to make the adjustment. You talk to guys like Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans, and Cary Williams that have played in this league for a number years that have played a certain type of way."

Illegal use of hands was called evenly both ways. The rules state that "hands cannot be thrust forward above the frame to contact an opponent on the neck, face, or head." But linemen on both sides have been playing that way for years, according to Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin.

"I'm surprised it's even an emphasis up front," Barwin said. "I didn't know that was a problem. . . . I don't get the problem with hands to the face up front with what we do naturally. But it is and they're calling it."

The league has said the limitations are partly for player safety. Defenders insist the changes are meant to favor offenses. There is supposed to be greater emphasis on limiting receivers who push off at the top of their routes and on cut blocking, but there haven't been as many penalties called.

"They want points," Barwin said of the NFL. "They want a quarterback league."

Kelly was obviously upset with his team after the game. He could complain all he wants, and the NFL may have some long games early in the season, but every team has to abide by the same rules.

"Whoever ends up being the most disciplined team in this league is going to win," Kelly said. "But the rule is not going to change."

It's up to the players to get the message or they'll be on the outside looking in.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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