There's no doubt that the Seahawks' secondary are notorious for being physical. Too Physical, some have noted. Indeed, by flanking the two tall cornerbacks with the hard-hitting Kam Chacellor and speedy Earl Thomas, one must question the need for calling zone coverage. The success of the "Legion of Boom" revolves around man-to-man and their ability to fight not simply for the ball, but also a position to get the ball.
Earlier in the season we noted the important instance of Richard Sherman's jab on Steve Smith. This simple move is enough to break up the quick comeback play by disrupting Smith's timing and body positioning. A large amount of success is defined by Sherman's own studying of Panthers film and experience as a WR - by aiming a punch towards Smith's chest, Sherman gains separation and a head start in reading his route. In turn, this causes a even better play later on as Sherman closes in on the receiver for the curl. Incomplete.
It's a technique that borders on being illegal and really effective at the same time. But Sherman is not the only player to do this. This style of play and philosophy within the secondary was as apparent as earlier last year with Brandon Browner, as shown through his countless DPIs. As he recalls in an interview with Bob and Groz in the summer:
"It's tough [to find the middle ground] but you know, you gotta think conscious effort, you know what I mean? I think focus all the way through the play I can knock at least half of those penalties down."
And that is a key difference from last year that showed the defense's improvement. Most of the time a referee calls for pass interference is in response for a DB moving in and out with the WR. The secondary limits as much separation as they could in playing man, so much so that DPI is almost impossible to call unless it is blatant. As defined, here is what the NFL considers either pass interference or defensive holding:
There shall be no interference with a forward pass thrown from behind the line. The restriction for the passing team starts with the snap. The restriction on the defensive team starts when the ball leaves the passer’s hand.It is pass interference by either team when any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player of such player's opportunity to catch the ball. Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched.
Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to:
(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver's opportunity to make the catch.
(b) Playing through the back of a receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
(c) Grabbing a receiver's arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.
(d) Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball. This is known as an "arm bar".
(e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.
(f) Hooking a receiver in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the receiver's body to turn prior to the ball arriving.
Actions that do not constitute pass interference include but are not limited to:
(a) Incidental contact by a defender's hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.
(b) Inadvertent tangling 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 pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.
(d) Laying a hand on a receiver that does not restrict the receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
(e) Contact by a defender who has gained position on a receiver in an attempt to catch the ball.
A defensive player may not tackle or hold an opponent other than a runner. Otherwise, he may use his hands, arms, or body only:
(a) To defend or protect himself against an obstructing opponent.
Exception: An eligible receiver is considered to be an obstructing opponent ONLY to a point five yards beyond the line of scrimmage unless the player who receives the snap clearly demonstrates no further intention to pass the ball. Within this five-yard zone, a defensive player may chuck an eligible player in front of him. A defensive player is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone until a point when the receiver is even with the defender. The defensive player cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an eligible receiver in a manner that restricts movement as the play develops. Beyond this five-yard limitation, a defender may use his hands or arms ONLY to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. In such reaction, the defender may not contact a receiver who attempts to take a path to evade him.
Now, most fans would probably think that any contact between a WR and DB is pass interference, but as the rulebook states, its more of a vague ideal that penalizes you for, mainly for your position and play towards the ball. It is here that allows the secondary to create a variety of moves and hand-fighting that hardens their physical mentality.
Let's look at a step by step frame of Jeremy Lane against Michael Crabtree:
Right away you can tell that Lane is playing at a unusually low level on Crabtree. Going back from what I wrote earlier, a lower level means better leverage, and in turn, better positioning in fighting against the WR. It all starts here, and not only for the "short" Jeremy Lane:
Back to Lane. The first step he takes towards Crabtree he keeps the opening separation and parallels his movement:
The first physical move that Lane puts on Crabtree is a shove onto the middle of his chest - a traditional DB bump, if you will:
Now instead of quickly turning his shoulders towards Crabtree and follow his route, Lane follows through with another "push" with his left, again on the inside of the jersey:
At that moment Crabtree is not playing for the ball yet, but the route he runs - an out towards the sideline - has already been disrupted. Since Lane has already started closing in on the gap between himself and Crabtree, the later is forced to push back and re-create the open space, so that the WR could turn and break away for the catch:
By the time the ball is thrown (and not accurately, I might add), Lane has positioned himself to Crabtree from YAC and possibly a first down. Crabtree lets the ball go through his hands.
Now its very common to see teams do this in short routes or small yardage situations. As the rules stated, the DB can hold a WR and pretty much be as physical as he wants within a 5-yard radius of the LOS. The art of true hand fighting within this physical secondary lies in the deep passes and routes. For that example, we again turn to Mr. Sherman:
Like Lane before him, Sherman again sets himself low and aims his eyes towards Crabtree's chest. He doesn't move with him just yet, and instead aims to close down on gap control/contain as the Niners run play action. Once he realizes that Colin Kaepernick is looking to pass though (or the fact that Crabtree isn't blocking but running a route)...
He instinctively holds him on the shoulders. As you can tell from above, they have not crossed the 5 yard region yet. (The LOS is on the 33 yard line.)
The same time Sherman is trying to hold on to Crabtree, the 49er is also fighting off in getting separation. You also see very clearly that Sherman quickly notices that his WR is running deep towards the outside, so he swings his shoulders and runs side-by-side with him until they both go past the 5-yard zone. Sherman quickly drops his hands down and avoids any contact to sway away possible holding calls, instead opting to go at his opponent's pace:
Now comes the fun part. Since PI is not called on the defense until the ball is thrown, Sherman can have fun in getting as physical and as close as he can to Crabtree. Remember that as the WR, his job isn't to get away from Sherman as to catch the ball thrown by his QB - so whatever his defender does, he must continue to waiver pass and bait him into a penalty. Offensive PI can also be called anytime at the snap, so Crabtree can't really fight back in terms of physicality.
But as a defender, how do you know when the ball is thrown if you are in coverage? The answer is reading the head of the guy you are covering. As Crabtree begins to rotate his head in finding the ball, Sherman gradually stops the contact:
Crabtree quickly accelerates and readjusts his path for the ball. Sherman, at an angle, finally starts playing behind the WR (though not by very much). His hands again go toward chest level to suggest no contact:
As Crabtree looks up towards the ball, Sherman unleashes his last set of moves. Notice how he isn't specifically restricting Crabtree from making the catch, but making little instances in getting a better position to where the ball is going to be. Both of Sherman's arms swing towards Crabtree's outside, forcing him to adjust even more towards the sideline and taking him away from the play:
Finally, at the last minute, Crabtree slows down and adjust to the ball's path. With the separation between him and Sherman closing again, the latter can finally throw more physical moves towards the ball itself.
Despite his best effort, the football reaches into Crabtree's hands. The fight is far from over though - Sherman places a strong jab at his hands in hopes of knocking the ball out late.
Unfortunately, it misses, and Crabtree ends up with a healthy 38 yard gain. It was a good play by Sherman playing as man up as you can get, but a better play by Crabtree in maintaining route integrity and keeping the ball.
All the Seahawks could do was acknowledge the spectacular effort.