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Pass interference, holding penalties on the rise in the NFL

In the same way that teams will scout an opponent for offensive and defensive tendencies, they also scout officiating crews. Teams try to decipher what kinds of penalties they call and how often, and then prepare their players for the tendencies. Some coaches go as far as using a PowerPoint presentation to inform their players and assistant coaches about what to expect on Sunday.

In looking at the calls officiating crews are making, there has been a significant uptick in pass interference (PI) penalties. When you look at the frequency of PI calls as a percentage of the number of pass attempts per year, it is clear that there is significantly more laundry on the field today than three years ago. This past Sunday wasn't a great example of this. There were 1,046 pass attempts and 10 PI calls, which was a slow week for PI calls (one PI flag out of every 104 pass attempts). But for the season, the numbers tell a completely different story (see box, right).

Why are PI calls on the rise? And what should coaches and players do about it? There clearly is more man-to-man coverage being employed right now and that close contact down the field results in more PI calls. Offensively, teams should be thinking about taking more shots downfield because the flag is coming out more quickly than it has in years. Just think, a QB in 2008 got a PI call once every 105 throws and today he gets one every 80 throws. It doesn't take long to get a few extra calls at a differential of 25 throws.

I discussed this trend with a few coaches. Most guessed that the majority of PI calls came in the fourth quarter of games. But last week, the second quarter of games equaled the other three quarters combined, meaning the 2-minute drill at the end of the half is a factor in this discussion as well.

Are offensive linemen holding more?

Pass interference calls aren't the only penalties on the rise. Offensive holding calls are up significantly on a weekly basis over the past six years. Pass attempts and sacks are on the rise, and pressure calls by the defense have become a mainstay. Consequently, offensive linemen can't keep their hands to themselves.

I asked two offensive line coaches about the steady increase in holding calls, and I got two interesting answers. The first blamed it on the increased use of five-man protection schemes when the linemen don't get any help from a back or tight end. Many quarterbacks prefer five receivers out in patterns and feel they can control a blitzer better with a receiver than a blocker. The second said it was due to too many backup offensive linemen having to play due to injuries and not being able to handle the pass rushers. That appeared to be the case last week for the Chargers when left tackle Marcus McNeill got hurt injury and Brandyn Dombrowski replaced him. Kamerion Wimbley went on to record four sacks of Philip Rivers.

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