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VOL. 46 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 23, 2022

How to steal 1st down without catch

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Long-held pigskin wisdom says three things can happen when you throw the football – completion, incompletion or interception.

But in the pass-happy world of today’s NFL, defensive penalties are an increasingly frequent fourth option, moving the chains in the same manner as a deep pass or big catch-and-run.

In the Tennessee Titans’ final drive in the season opener against the New York Giants, two defensive holding penalties against the Giants sustained the Titans’ march down field. Randy Bullock’s field goal try ultimately sailed wide, but the offense did its job at the end to give Bullock a chance.

Players and coaches admit that you never know exactly what officials will and won’t see on a particular play, but there is an art to being able to enhance a player’s chances of getting the call, whether it is a hold or a pass interference call.

The attempt to draw the deep pass interference flag has come in vogue around the NFL, with QBs intentionally underthrowing passes and the intended receiver turning back and initiating contact. If a penalty is called, it almost always goes against the defender.

“I think as you look around the league, sometimes guys that are quicker or maybe set up a move, stem a guy, then maybe there is some level of throwing your hands up,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel says. “We talk about opportunities for receivers to come back to the football and try to get some of those penalties. You want to make the play and try to catch the football, but usually it’s just some quick guys that get guys off balance and then they grab and restrict.”

Tight end Austin Hooper, who drew one of the two defensive holding penalties on that final drive, says there is a certain knack to knowing how to get the officials’ attention when he feels there has been illegal contact on the play.

“It’s easier to kind of accentuate a hold,” he says. “When I had one in the game, I knew I was being restricted, so I can either run out and get a catch for 8 yards or we get a penalty and get a (first down).

“Essentially, I was getting held, so you just kind of accentuate it, knowing you are getting held illegally. There are situations when you fight through it for sure, but that was one of the ones where he was getting into me, so you just kind of flail your arms a little bit, accentuate it. The ref in the back sees it easier.”

Offensive coordinator Todd Downing says a savvy vet like Hooper knows how to get the benefit of the doubt on calls like that.

“It’s just strength through contact and play speed. Hoop does a great job of setting up defenders and getting on an edge, and sometimes when they hook him or grab him, he’s able to show that he’s being restricted and that kind of movement lets the official know that there’s been some grabbing there,” Downing says.

“There’s some savviness to that and some football IQ and understanding that, ‘Hey, I’ve got a guy on a certain leverage. Let’s take advantage of it and put him in a tough spot.’”

Hooper admits he has picked up a few tricks over the years and isn’t afraid to use one in the right situation.

“The longer you play, you pick up a few tools of the trade, and there are situations where you use it and situations where you just play through it,” he says. “That was just one of those situations where it was just kind of more beneficial for the team to sell that one more.”

Rookie Kyle Philips, who showed himself to be slippery in man coverage during camp and preseason, got the other defensive holding call on the drive. The slot receiver says it is important to keep fighting through the contact to try and get the reception because the call might not always be forthcoming, even with contact.

“Being able to get penalties can definitely help keep a drive going but I just want to be able to fight through that and maybe come down with the ball instead of coming down with a penalty,” Philips says.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill appreciates Philips’ elusiveness, which can create problems for defensive backs who may have to resort to getting a penalty rather than yielding a bigger play.

“Whenever you have a guy like Kyle, and he makes the defensive back miss, then they panic and they try to do everything they can to not lose the rep and sometimes that includes holding,” Tannehill says. “Kyle has done a great job throughout training camp of beating one-on-one coverage. He did that (against the Giants.).”

Of course, from the defensive perspective, players are aware that certain guys will try to do a little acting from time to time to get a call.

“I think some receivers are a little bit more tapped in as far as what the refs are looking for,” safety Kevin Byard says. “That’s how our receivers are, because that’s what Mike Vrabel talks about all the time, like what the refs are looking for, especially when you’re talking about as a (defensive back) a lot of times the ball is in the air, do you turn around when the receiver slows down, try to get your head around.

“The receivers kind of understand what the rules are, that if the cornerback is face guarding, it’s not necessarily a penalty, but if you jump back into the DB, even if it’s a bad throw, they’re going to throw the flag.”

Byard says it was something he discussed with game officials who visited Titans camp with the joint practices against the Buccaneers and Cardinals.

“I talked to the referees in training camp that you have to start penalizing these quarterbacks throwing bad throws,” the 2021 All-Pro selection says. “But obviously they’re not going to do that. I think some receivers are more tapped in than others, depending on how good the receivers coach or head coach is coaching them up.”

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