- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Every day is "flag day" in the NFL. All summer, officials have been enforcing the league's new edict to minimize defensive contact after a receiver goes five yards into his route. Penalties have soared during the preseason, and that's not likely to change. Early in the Chargers training camp, Marty Schottenheimer had his cornerbacks wear boxing gloves so they wouldn't accidentally grab the jersey of a receiver.
This isn't a rule change. It's a point of emphasis. In 1994, the league tried to reverse a downturn in passing stats by giving receivers more freedom to run their routes. Illegal contact penalties soared from 40 to 117. Interference penalties jumped from 178 to 216. But the point was made. Scoring increased from 37.3 to 40.51. Yards per completion improved from 11.55 to 11.66. Offense was back.
Over the past few years, cornerbacks have gradually been allowed to get away with more contact. The 79 illegal contact penalties -- roughly one every three games -- was the second lowest since 1998. Completion yardage dropped to 11.3 a game, and scoring was on a downward trend.
Which teams will be affected the most by the enhanced enforcement.
New England Patriots: It's only natural the Patriots would be at the top of the list. Their mugging of the Colts receivers during the AFC Championship game convinced the Competition Committee that contact was getting out of hand. Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't preach illegal contact, but he loves to have his corners get away with as much contact as the officials will allow. According to Stats Inc., the Patriots had only five illegal contact penalties last year. The Patriots have older corners -- Ty Law, Tyrone Poole and Terrell Buckley -- and older corners may have a tendency to use their tricks more than their speed. Law is still one of the best in the game and still has the speed to adjust to a game of less contact. Next Thursday's regular-season opener against the Colts is the best test of their adjustments.
Miami Dolphins: Nobody presses from the line of scrimmage to the end of the routes better than Dolphins cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison. Add Reggie Howard and Will Poole to the mix, and the Dolphins have more men to handle the man-to-man assignments against any offense sending out four wide receivers into routes. But man-to-man involves contact and officials will be watching close. Until last season, Madison and Surtain were complaining because of the illegal contact and holding calls. Last year, they were relatively flag free. But with the new emphasis, the Dolphins will have to find out if their man-to-man aggression will be a scheme that is like a fish out of water.
Carolina Panthers: Like most of their counterparts in the NFC South, Panthers cornerbacks compensate for any lack of speed by using their hands. The Panthers got to the Super Bowl by having cornerbacks manhandle the Eagles receivers. No more. The Panthers will have to adjust their game, but they have one other issue that could cause problems. They are young at cornerback. Young cornerbacks tend to get flagged. Ask Bears corner Charles Tillman who had seven interference calls last season. Chris Gamble and Ricky Manning Jr. are extremely talented but they enter the season as one of the youngest sets of corners in the NFL and that usually means penalty flags.
New Orleans Saints: Saints defenders are pretty well schooled. They know the tricks. Last year, they were among the least penalized secondaries in football. Still, Fred Thomas and Ashley Ambrose aren't the fastest corners so they have to rely on guile and smarts. Matching up against fast receivers might be a challenge that could cause them to draw some flags.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons are in an adjustment period after being a team that tended to clutch and grab receivers. They will start a rookie -- DeAngelo Hall -- and former 49er Jason Webster, who is learning a new defense. Any secondary making such a dramatic adjustment may have a little extra contact in the early stages of the season.
Dallas Cowboys: According to Stats Inc. the Cowboys drew 14 interference calls and three illegal contacts last season, the highest combined total on their charts. Part of that was Terence Newman's rookie season. With a year of experience behind him, Newman should be better and most teams will stay away from throwing to his side. The danger is in the rest of the secondary. Pete Hunter, Donald Mitchell and Bruce Thornton have to step up and take command. But as they learn, the flags could fly.
Tennessee Titans: Because they play a little more man than most teams, the Titans will be under a close watch. What's interesting is coach Jeff Fisher is on the Competition Committee and may be one of the best coaches in teaching his corners to have less contact despite their aggressive style. The Titans use forms of the old Buddy Ryan 46 defense along with numerous eight-man pressure packages, which requires single coverage by cornerbacks. This group will be among the best coached in how to properly avoid getting flagged.
Chicago Bears: By scheme, the Bears shouldn't have any problems. Lovie Smith uses the Cover 2 system, and that allows a cushion for the defensive backs in covering. But the Bears are going to be very young because of injuries to Jerry Azumah and R.W. McQuarters that will linger well into the regular season. Charles Tillman is a budding star but he still was among the most flagged corners for contact last season. The other corners are young and may be vulnerable to flags.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.
5hEric D. Williams
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