It isn’t quite as easy as knowing when to “hold ‘em” and when to “fold ‘em,” but the Jets’ secondary must learn how to walk that fine line between aggressive football and plays that will lead to penalties.
In last week’s 34-24 loss in Oakland, the secondary struggled with penalties. They were flagged five times for infractions and twice for defensive pass interference calls — with cornerback Antonio Cromartie being the target of both of the pass interference calls. Now, with Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco coming off a 389-yard, three touchdown passing performance in Week 3 against St. Louis, the Jets must get ready to play physical football without all the whistles.
On Monday, head coach Rex Ryan complained that the rules are hampering his team from playing the aggressive, physical football he likes from his cornerbacks.
“We didn’t do ourselves any favors by having five defensive penalties in that game. It gives you five more possessions basically. That’s going to kill you. But it’s much harder to play defense,” Ryan said. “I think sometimes, the defensive guy has a right to the football, and it’s hard to sometimes judge, is it pass interference? Is a guy making a play on the ball? I think some of these receivers are so good at knowing how to draw penalties or whatever, but it’s certainly much harder to play defense now than it was, say, 10 years ago.”
It is, simply put, an offensive league and even the pass interference rules favor wide receivers. A cornerback is allowed to “bump” a receiver within the first five yards from scrimmage, but after that only slight contact can take place or else it is “incidental contact.” This is a dicey rule and solely left up to the interpretation of the referee.
Former NFL referee Jim Tunney, who was in the league for more than three decades, says that it has to be “clear” to the referee that a player’s movement was impeded for it to be pass interference. If it isn’t definitive in the “nanoseconds” he has to observe the play, then there shouldn’t be a whistle.
“As long as they don’t gain an advantage, then let it go,” Tunney told Metro. “Incidental contact that doesn’t change the balance, doesn’t throw him off, doesn’t take him out of position — well, that’s not pass interference.”
There were seven penalties called on the Jets for a total of 61 yards last weekend, an especially worrisome stat since they played an Oakland team that leads the league in both of those categories.
Cromartie was hit with two pass interference calls on the day, reminiscent of the 28-yard pass interference call he had in the Week 1 opener last year to Baltimore, which the Jets lost 10-9. If Cromartie is healthy enough to play — he suffered a rib injury in the fourth quarter of the Oakland game — he could well be targeted again.
Despite the struggles of delicately toeing the line between good technique and penalties, the Jets still plan on playing their usual brand of football. Their 3-4 scheme is predicated on their cornerbacks being able to bump and jam the wide receivers at the line, allowing their linebackers to blitz and get pressure on the pocket.
“At the end of the day you have to play football. Coach isn’t going to ask you to not play as physical on receivers, they are asking that we play smarter,” cornerback Marquice Cole said. “You don’t want to take the edge off and then start playing softer on receivers and then giving them access down the field, which is what they want.”
Tunney said that players who have learned how to be physical and get away with the little things without crossing the line can still play physical football without getting flagged. Cornerback Kyle Wilson agreed with this point, saying that “The big thing is playing our technique and adjusting to how the game is being called.” But given the struggles in Oakland last week, could there be a kinder, softer Jets this Sunday night against the Ravens?
“I doubt it,” safety Emmanuel Cook said. “We’re going to stay physical because that’s who we are — Jets football is playing physical. We’re not going to change that.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.