Chiefs adjust to crackdown on overly physical defensive play

08/21/2014 7:16 PM

08/21/2014 7:16 PM

Chiefs coach Andy Reid has made it clear that his team has certainly taken its fair share of lessons from their first two preseason games.

But following the Chiefs’ 28-16 loss to Carolina on Sunday, both Reid and his players made it clear that one new reality — the NFL’s crackdown on overly physical defensive play on receivers — sticks out like a sore thumb.

“It’s being called real tight, and we knew that coming in,” Reid said. “The bottom line is: They’re going to call (penalties) and it sounds like they are going to continue to call them, and you just hope it doesn’t turn away the spectators from the game. They get bored watching the officials throw the ball more than the quarterback. That could be a problem.”

If Reid sounds like a coach frustrated by the new rules, it’s because his team — which utilizes a physical bump-and-run style made popular by the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks — certainly felt the pinch against the Bengals on Aug. 7 and the Panthers.

Through two games, the Chiefs were penalized for illegal contact once, defensive holding three times and pass interference twice. If they continue to be whistled at the current rate in the regular season, they’ll rack up eight illegal contact penalties (compared with one in 2013), 24 defensive holding penalties (compared with 11) and 16 pass interference calls (compared with eight).

“Some of them are out of poor technique — you get behind, you grab,” Sutton said. “That would have been the same as last year. There’s other ones that are more touchy, if you would, but if that’s how they’re enforced, that is how they’re enforced and we’ve got to adjust to it.”

The Chiefs aren’t the only ones who need to adjust. According to The Washington Post, there have been 230 additional penalties through the first two weeks of the preseason — 134 of which were attributable to increases in illegal contact and defensive holding calls — compared with last year.

“It’s not just the Kansas City Chiefs; it’s the whole league,” said veteran cornerback Chris Owens. “So we’ve got to look at it in a broader picture.”

To review: Illegal contact is called when defenders initiate contact with receivers more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage when the quarterback is in the pocket with the football or in the process of releasing it. Defensive holding is called when defenders grab any part of a receiver’s uniform prior to a pass.

The referees are obviously serious about enforcing both, which are five-yard penalties that result in automatic first downs, in addition to pass interference.

Sutton and his players, however, say they can’t necessarily let this change their identity as a press-man team.

“We’re still going to try to challenge the receivers as much as we can,” Sutton said. “We’ve just got to keep emphasizing cleaning up our technique.”

Indeed, in the absence of physical play beyond five yards, cornerbacks say the margin for error has never been smaller.

“Your technique has got to be on point,” Owens said. “I can only speak for myself, but you mess up on your technique, and then you start to grab and pull.”

So far, each of the Chiefs’ top three outside cornerbacks — Sean Smith, Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker — has been whistled for at least one of the aforementioned penalties.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smith, who received a defensive holding call against Carolina, said he has no intention of eliminating his physical style of play altogether. That would negate his best weapon, which is his uncommon size and length.

But adjustments are necessary, and he clearly understands the finer points of what he and the rest of the corners have to do going forward.

“(You) learn how to use your feet,” Smith said. “Especially in press, you want to stay square as long as you can. From the looks of it, you’re only allowed to give (the receiver) one good pop as far as pressing. From there, hands off. … Try to put yourself in good position.”

Smith said the effort toward perfecting this starts at practice, particularly when it comes to gaining a second sense for when the five-yard window for bump-and-run coverage has passed.

“They’re not playing that this year,” Smith said. “They’re not giving you five and a half or six. I’m trying to get my hands on him and trying to keep a mental clock on how far I am downfield.”

Smith knows this is something that’s much easier to say than do. That’s why it could could prove to be a challenge for all of the Chiefs’ corners, as well as several others around an increasingly pass-happy and offense-friendly league.

Still, Smith says he and his fellow corners aren’t letting their spirits sink because of the rules.

“Things change. Guys get bigger and faster,” Smith said. “It’s always going to be something that kind of changes the game, but there’s nothing like going out there in front of the fans. As long as you use your technique and make plays, I feel like that kind of overrides everything else.”

Trade — The Chiefs dealt second-year guard Rishaw Johnson to Tampa Bay for third-year safety Kelcie McCray.

McCray, 25, had 12 tackles and a pass deflection in 15 games last season with the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Chiefs claimed Johnson on waivers from the Seattle Seahawks before the season opener last September. Johnson, 25, is a former undrafted free agent who is 6 feet 3 and 313 pounds. He got the start in the Chiefs’ regular-season finale against the Chargers last season and played well enough to get the first crack at replacing departed Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah.

However, sixth-round rookie Zach Fulton started taking some of his first-string snaps in organized team activities and overtook Johnson for good in training camp. Fulton got the start with the first team in the preseason opener against Cincinnati and never looked back.

Charles takes the field — Running back Jamaal Charles returned to practice Thursday but not with the starters.

Charles, who did not make the trip to North Carolina for Sunday’s preseason game because of an off-field foot injury, worked with the second team and scout team in Thursday’s practice.

“We’ve seen him all preseason, of course, and he’s one of the best going,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “He gives us a good look in there. Glad to see him out there, period.”

The Chiefs did not say whether Charles, who missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday, would play Saturday night against Minnesota.

Surgery for Mays — Inside linebacker Joe Mays will have wrist surgery, a source confirmed.

Mays, 29, injured his wrist during the first half of the Chiefs’ 28-16 exhibition loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It’s unclear how long Mays will be out.

Mays, who signed to a two-year, $6 million contract, hasn’t practiced with the Chiefs this week. He was brought in to start in the base defense next to star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, and is an experienced veteran who is regarded as solid against the run.

Mays’ injury could provide opportunities for 2013 fourth-round pick Nico Johnson, third-year pro James-Michael Johnson and veteran Josh Mauga.

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