Chiefs cornerbacks adjusting technique to combat penalties

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Yellow flags decorating a football field is commonplace through two preseason games, especially when it comes to illegal contact and defensive holding.

And the penalties are eye-popping when compared to the 2013 preseason, captured best in a tweet from Pro Football Talk on NBC Sports Network:

The Chiefs aren’t immune entering the third week of preseason action, totaling 20 various infractions after two games.

“It’s being called real tight and we knew that coming in,” coach Andy Reid said earlier in the week. “We’ve got to do a better job.”

The area the Chiefs must adjust, much like the rest of the NFL, surrounds the league’s emphasis where cornerbacks now have a bulls-eye painted on jerseys.

That scenario is magnified for the press-man defensive coverage scheme favored by the Chiefs, and the first two preseason games reflect growing pains.

Aug 7, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith (21) is called for holding against Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate (19) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 7, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith (21) is called for holding against Bengals wide receiver Brandon Tate (19) at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback Ron Parker drew an illegal contact infraction, and cornerback Sean Smith and defensive end Jaye Howard drew defensive holding penalties in the first game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Chiefs were penalized on two pass interference calls, one each by Parker and cornerback Marcus Cooper, and a defensive holding penalty against cornerback Phillip Gaines in the second game against the Carolina Panthers.

The amount of flags thrown around the league won’t likely cease during the regular season, meaning it’s up to the pass defenders to improve.

“We told the players we’ve got to adjust as if this is going to continue,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “That just means you’re going to have to be very diligent with your technique. You’re going to have to respect the 5-yard rule, which has always been a rule anyway.”

While the rule has existed, Smith points out in the past players knew what some officiating crews would emphasize while overlooking other areas.

But Smith is fully cognizant of the league’s determination to clean up contact between defenders and receivers, a message Sutton has reinforced with his players.

“Any time you’re in a game whether they’re calling holding,” Sutton said, “whatever it is, you have to understand the officials you’re dealing with and you’ve got to adjust. You can complain all you’d like, but they’ve got the flags. And if they’re going to call them that way, you have to adjust in the game.”

Sutton’s message has been received.

The 6-3, 218-pound Smith said the biggest takeaway from the first two preseason games is cornerbacks have to learn how to move their feet, especially in press-man coverage.

Smith adds he’s experimented during practice by placing his hands on receivers for a two-count. He then reviews film to see how far down the field the count holds with a view to within 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.

“They’re not playing that this year,” Smith said of the officials. “They’re not going to give you 5 ½ or 6 (yards), so I try and get my hands on him and keep a mental clock how far down the field.”

The sixth-year pro said practicing will prevent frustrations when the flags fly, and he doesn’t want to alter how he’s trained in the Chiefs’ defensive scheme.

“The biggest thing is you don’t want to stop being aggressive because that will change your whole game,” Smith said. “There’s no point being up there in press if you can’t touch the guy, so you definitely still want to be physical.”

The Chiefs defensive coordinator agreed.

“We’re still going to try and challenge the receivers as much as we can and we just have to keep emphasizing cleaning up our technique,” Sutton said. “Some of them (penalties) are out of poor technique, you get behind, you grab, that would’ve been the same as last year. There are other ones that are more touchy if you would, but if that’s how they’re enforced, that’s how they’re enforced and you got to adjust to it.”

The league’s crackdown on illegal contact and defensive holding this season is a move widely viewed as a reaction to the physical defensive secondary play of the Seattle Seahawks, the reigning Super Bowl champions.

Handcuffing cornerbacks should allow wide receivers, especially big receivers, to thrive. And that prospect offers defenses a stout challenge in a league that already slants heavily to the offensive side of the ball.

But at least one high-profile offensive player has spoken out against the penalties.

Houston Texans veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson, a two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowl selection, told 610 Sports Radio in Houston he isn’t a fan of the preseason binge.

Smith smiled when asked for his thoughts of Johnson’s disdain for the surge of infractions. The Chiefs cornerback complimented the Houston star’s history and willingness to compete one-on-one against defenders.

“I’m not putting words in his mouth,” Smith said, “but I assume he’s speaking on behalf of just competing with a guy in those first 5-yard battles that help determine who is going to win the route.”

Johnson told 610 Sports Radio he believed the league will experience a decrease in penalties as the regular season progress, contrary to the NFL’s stance of strict enforcement on the areas of emphasis.

Regardless how it works out, Smith and his teammates are concentrating on adapting playing styles to fit within the emphasized rules knowing the officials are closely watching.

“It’s going to be tough,” Smith admits. “But that’s why we practice and work at it.”