FOXBORO – Picks, screens, rubs – whatever you want to call ‘em – NFL offenses use them.
And my guess is that they are going to be very closely scrutinized the rest of the season.
Anyone watching the success of the Broncos this season has seen the way they’ve profited from having their receivers cross either near the line of scrimmage when they’re lined up on the same side or in slower developing crossers with receivers who begin on opposite sides of the formation.
When coverage guys are in man-to-man, the chore of maintaining contact with their man while eluding both a teammate in coverage and an offensive player they are not in pursuit of creates space. It’s gone on for decades but the Broncos have been bold about employing them.
Kevin Clark of the Wall Street Journal actually presaged the importance picks would play on Sunday night in this column.
"No team seems more aware of the higher bar for offensive pass interference than the Denver Broncos, who flirt with that infraction nearly every time they run their nearly unstoppable 'pick' play,” wrote Clark. "Here's how it works: Two or more Broncos line up next to each other. One—let's say wide receiver Eric Decker—manages to run a route in which he stands in front of two defensive backs. Meanwhile, the other wide receiver (a speedster like Wes Welker or Demaryius Thomas) loops around Decker's back into open spaces. It's how quarterback Peyton Manning has managed to lead the NFL in passing yards with 3,572 while throwing the most passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage--61%. Thomas, who relies on the picks and the intense blocking in the short-passing game, leads the NFL in yards after catch with 436.
The nuances of the rule and the necessity of judging intent make it a chore for analysts to adequately explain. For example, in Sunday night’s game against the Broncos, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth cited the Patriots for several offensive pass interference infractions that really weren’t.
On a 33-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski in the third quarter, Collinsworth alleged that Julian Edelman had created contact with the defender on Gronkowski, clearing Gronk for the reception.
In fact, there was no contact on Gronkowski’s defender. And the near-contact that occurred was actually at the snap and within 1-yard of the line of scrimmage, which is legal.
In the second quarter, Danny Amendola was correctly called for OPI because he made contact on a crossing route with the player covering Gronkowski and Amendola clearly changed the depth of his route to initiate the collision.
Here are the rules germane to the discussion.
Actions that constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to:
(a) Blocking downfield by an offensive player prior to the ball being touched.
(b) Initiating contact with a defender by shoving or pushing off thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.
(c) Driving through a defender who has established a position on the field.
Actions that do not constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to:
(a) Incidental contact by a receiver’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball or neither player is looking for the ball.
(b) Inadvertent touching of feet when both players are playing the ball or neither player is playing the ball.
(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the ball is clearly uncatchable by involved players.
“Note 1” is important to remember because as conversation around these pick plays – which Denver has used all season to great effect – one can expect officials to become more suspicious of the intent of contact on crossing routes.
Also, one can expect defensive coaches to start encouraging their defenders to – when faced with imminent contact and knowing they will be out of position on a reception – to let the contact happen and presume the flag will fly. In short, make a mess and put it on the official.
That, of course, is going to usher in a rash of defensive flopping.
The Patriots, of course, run crossers that create confusion as well. Still, as Tom Brady explained Wednesday, they keep getting busted.
“Certain teams do it a lot,” he said. "We don’t do it a ton because we tend to get penalties when we do it so it defeats the whole purpose. You kind of talk about it and you get excited to do it and you think it looks good and then the refs – we got called last game on a pass interference on Danny [Amendola] which was – anyway...”
Brady broke off before directly questioning the legitimacy of the call. He did remember clearly, however, the OPI call on Rob Gronkowski that wiped a touchdown off the board against the Jets in the Patriots road loss.
“Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t,” Brady shrugged. “Certain games don’t ever get called and we’ve gotten called. So you probably tend to do it less if you get called. It’s more of a body presence thing and making sure that you don’t get called for a penalty because it’s an illegal play. You’re not supposed to do it. You’re not supposed to set picks, it’s not basketball.
But you can have body presence and make a guy bubble under or over, whatever you’re depending on, what you really want to do.”
It is a nuance play, as Brady said. And it’s one not easily judged from field level in bang-bang live action. That’s why it’s critical to note that officials need to presume no PI when there’s a question.
And to be aware of the depth when players make contact.
“If you’re on the line of scrimmage you can do it because technically you’re a blocker at that point,” said Brady. “We had a play in the AFC Championship Game, at the end of the game I threw to Kevin Faulk in 2007, where we did pick them. I think Jabar [Gaffney] came in and actually picked the guy. We threw it and they were complaining [for] a flag but it was right on the line of scrimmage. It’s on the line of scrimmage you can get away with it. It would be like a tackle blocking a defensive end, they don’t know what to call. But if you’re down the field...”
Brady alluded to the difficulty of seeing passing fouls called with consistency.
“Defenders hold and they get away it and they get away with that all game, you don’t get calls,” he clamed. “It’s just the way the NFL is now. They hold, we do things; it’s just kind of you do business as business is being done.”
The business of receivers running interference for their teammates has been booming. Expect that market to cool as the 2013 season wears on.