The San Francisco 49ers will face off against the potent Denver Broncos offense this Sunday at Levi's Stadium. We probably won't see a ton of Peyton Manning and the first string offense, but with it being Week 2, we might at least get a couple series of Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas.
This will be a big test for a secondary that has undergone a lot of change, but it also could be an interesting test of the new point of emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding. Last month, Mike Pereira said that those would be points of emphasis this year. In Week 1 of the preseason, we saw that in action. According to John Clayton, Week 1 of the preseason saw 53 calls for defensive holding, 27 for illegal contact, and 15 for pass interference. According to NFL.com, last season saw 37 illegal contact calls and 171 defensive holds all last year during the regular season.
Peter King was told the league would call things very tight during the preseason. King thought the league would likely loosen up a bit during the regular season, having emphasized what they want players to do in the preseason. We'll have to wait and see how that plays out, but it is something the 49ers are most definitely aware of at this point. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has spoken about this on a couple occasions. The first quotation is from August 10, shortly after the Ravens game. The second quotation is from two days ago (Wednesday):
A lot has been made this preseason so far of the pass interference, contact, holding. How are you guys preparing differently, if at all, to pass that down to the players given how things are called more?
"Well, we've always taught our players to play with the technique that's within the rules. The officiating has been instructed to be more diligent in that area. We saw a negative with that the other night in our game where it was on one of the third downs there in the second half. They called us for an illegal contact penalty, which in no way, shape or form was an illegal contact penalty. And the league's already confirmed that it wasn't. You hate to think that these guys have been drilled into their head that they're seeing ghosts out there now, too. We were called for a penalty where a guy did nothing wrong, nothing from a technical standpoint or rules standpoint, but yet was called for a penalty. We hope that stuff gets cleaned up by the time the regular season comes."
I think the officials, we were talking to them about that five-yard, illegal contact drill that's being emphasized. They were saying they were impressed out on the field that your guys knew to come up within four yards to do it rather than really cut it close on the boundary. Is that something you've gone over with them?
"We emphasize that all the time. Even prior to them saying they're going to be diligent. Obviously, we've made our players aware as the officials have, too, when they met with us that they've been instructed to call that more. I just hope that we don't start seeing penalties called that don't exist like what happened in the preseason game last Thursday (Ventrone penalty)."
Some teams have had their defensive backs doing work with boxing gloves and tennis balls to work on the technique needed to avoid the penalties. I have not heard any specifics on 49ers work, although none of the practice reports mentioned boxing gloves or tennis balls for defensive back work. The 49ers were called for seven defensive holding calls, and zero illegal contact calls in 2013.
Against the Ravens, Raymond Ventrone was called for illegal contact, and according to Vic Fangio, the NFL later said it was a bad call. In adding this emphasis, the preseason provides some time for the refs to figure out what exactly should constitute illegal contact. These defensive pass-related penalties will be worth tracking all season.