49ers vs. Seahawks: Breaking down the 'holding' issue

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers host a Seahawks team that gets a lot of criticism for their defensive holding. We spoke with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls to get his thoughts on the issue.

One topic that comes up whenever the 49ers and Seahawks square off is the issue of holding by the Seattle secondary. The topic has only further pushed to the national consciousness with the Wall Street Journal article last week.

As part of our preparation for the NFC title game, I am exchanging questions with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls. Yesterday, I asked him five questions about the Seahawks offense, and I answered his questions about the 49ers offense.

We're moving on to five questions about the defense, which gave me a chance to inquire about the holding issue. Danny provided a detailed response, and given how frequently this topic arises, I wanted to separate it out from the rest of the questions. I felt like it was a quality analysis of a touchy topic.

If you disagree with Danny's assessment of the situation, do so respectfully. There is no need to get angry about it today. On to Danny's thoughts on the topic.

Niners Nation: Most would say the Seahawks secondary is the best in the NFL. Of course, opposing fans frequently bring up the holding issue. How do Seahawks fans view this, and how much does it impact the performance of this secondary?

Field Gulls: This is probably a touchy subject with Niners fans, so I'm sure I'll probably ruffle feathers with my take on it. But here goes.

I believe Anquan Boldin said on Wednesday that "If you get called for it, it's holding; if not, it's not holding. You just play football." Boldin, probably better than most, knows about the nuances of the receiver position as it relates to corners and safeties, and has been known to push the limits of the rulebook at the right moment to get separation. The best players all do this. Boldin's not fast, but he's an amazingly resourceful receiver that uses his physicality to separate and make huge plays.

Michael Irvin, known in his day for subtle pushing off, was on the local radio here recently, and he said that against good cornerbacks in the NFL, there is no such thing as separation. It's about getting open at the moment the ball is arriving, and shrewd physicality is the name of the game. Hand fighting, savvy leverage techniques, mostly indiscernible grabs, pushes, and pulls - as long as you're not bear-hugging or fully extending your arms, these types of things go uncalled, in general.

It's the norm in this league, not the exception. I'm not sure why people believe this is a one-way street or that the Seahawks are unique in their strategy.

That strategy is characterized by aggressive, physical play, wrought with talk trash and bravado. This draws attention, and they've earned a reputation for all of that. I can see why people think it's just the Seahawks that do this, but it goes on in every secondary on every defense. If Seattle is the only team doing it and so consistently "getting away with it" to their benefit, why don't other teams do it?

Because the Seattle secondary is more physical than most, they'll be the poster child for it. That's fine. The Niners' defensive line, led by Justin Smith, is a fearsome unit and Smith has a reputation around the league for holding on every play, so to me, there's no real difference. Nor do I resent him for it. Smith is a great, savvy veteran player that knows what he can and can't get away with, and he does a damn good job snap-in and snap-out bullying offensive linemen. Does he hold? Probably pretty often. Is he cheating? Not in my opinion. If he was on my team, I wouldn't want him to change his style.

It's part of football, and it's not the players' responsibility to throw flags. There was an NFL Films segment from last year's playoffs where a ref warned Richard Sherman about holding and Sherman admonished him to "throw the flag then!" It's a deliberate style of play, but as long as the referees aren't preventing you from playing it, why stop?

At the end of the day, I don't think Seahawk fans care, or should care, because the referees are free to call the game as they see fit. It's a game to game thing, and each crew calls it differently (which is really kind of the annoying thing, since it should be consistent). It's not like the Hawks get preferential treatment either, because I do believe they've been called for defensive holding more than any other team in the NFL - perhaps at least partly related to Jim Harbaugh's incessant lobbying about it.

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