Considering teams had mere weeks to prepare, the quality of play in the NFL’s opening week looked fairly clean to the naked eye, potentially aided by an overall reduction in penalty flags. That reduction, however, didn’t apply to every area.
Per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the league called the fewest holding penalties in at least 20 seasons, which led to the second-fewest overall flags in any Week 1 since 2001. While the relaxed holding calls were the main story nationally, there was no such decrease in pass interference calls following the league’s failed one-year experiment to make pass interference reviewable. There were 28 defensive pass interference calls in Week 1, according to nflpenalties.com, the second-most in a decade. It was the most called penalty of the week with an average of 1.75 per game, much higher than the 2019 average of 1.06 per game.
Since nflpenalties.com began tracking flags in 2009, only one week over the course of 11 seasons saw defensive pass interference called more often: Week 13 of the 2018 season, when there were 29 flags.
With interference no longer reviewable, one of the game’s highest-impact penalties is again left to officials’ judgment.
The Vikings, to their credit, stayed interference-free against the Packers despite numerous other warts displayed by their secondary that allowed Aaron Rodgers to pass for 364 yards. While improving their coverage is the primary concern, the defensive backs group will have to stay vigilant if Week 1 is indicative of a renewed focus on pass interference. Head coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t a fan of the reviews a year ago but remains unhappy with the way the league is legislating the rule.
“The replay of the pass interference just didn’t work,” he said Friday. “There wasn’t enough consistency. My opinion, which I’ll probably get in trouble for, is that’s part of the problem with the pass interference. If you can’t get it right in replay, but all of a sudden you’re going to get it right when it happens on the field, I just don’t feel like there’s enough definitiveness with how it’s being called.”
The Vikings have youth at cornerback, which can often lead to grabbiness. Former high picks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander were all penalty-prone early in their careers, and Rhodes notably practiced with boxing gloves to resist the urge to use his hands. Newest rookie Cameron Dantzler didn’t get penalized in his first professional game, and as Zimmer said Wednesday, that’s one of his strong suits.
“He’s been pretty good, really,” Zimmer said. “As far as all the young guys, he’s probably the best at not grabbing. But yeah, most young guys have a tendency because they can get away with that in college.”
Dantzler is out Sunday, however, with a rib injury sustained in Sunday’s game. In all likelihood, fellow rookie Jeff Gladney will see a spike in work, and the physical style for which he’s known will be tested against potentially more stringent officiating. Third-year cornerback Mike Hughes remembers how focused he had to be as a rookie to avoid penalties when he debuted as a first-round pick in 2018.
“I was very conscious of it, because obviously this is the NFL and there are great receivers around the league,” Hughes said. “You don’t want to be that guy that gets penalized and hurts the team. You’re very conscious of playing with good technique and not trying to grab guys and sling them or anything. You’re very conscious of it.”
One might assume that taking the review possibility away would decrease flags, since video reviews would no longer manifest subtle contact, but there was a very modest spike in calls from 2018 to 2019. After some controversial reviews in the first few weeks of the 2019 season — including an innocuous offensive pass interference call on Dalvin Cook that overturned a Vikings touchdown in Green Bay — the league essentially stopped reversing calls upon review.
In a story late last season, Seifert detailed that the overturn rate was less than 5% on challenges. The Vikings wound up benefiting greatly, too. Jayron Kearse got tangled up with Noah Fant on the final play of the game in a win against Denver in Week 11 but was not called, and Kyle Rudolph may have gotten away with a push-off on the game-winning touchdown in the NFC Wild Card game.
On one hand, there will be no more sweating that a big play will be overturned by a flag after the fact. The call on the field will stand, for better or for worse. The Vikings were on the right and wrong end of the rule a year ago, so they know as well as anyone: The team on the wrong end usually feels cheated when the rule is inconsistently applied, as it was in 2019.
“I prefer they get the call right,” said co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer. “We don’t want them to have a 40-yard pass interference that costs us the game. But at the same point, if it’s reviewable and they’re not overturning obvious things, then it’s kind of pointless to have it. To me, the best way they can get the call right is the way we have to have the rule.”
If Week 1 is any indication, calls may be increasing to compensate for the lack of review ability. Considering that each flag last week went for an average of almost 19 yards, that’s no small thing. Furthermore, an offensive pass interference call took center stage in last weekend’s Sunday night game, when Dallas’s long completion in the final minute of play was overturned, essentially sealing a loss. There were five offensive pass interference calls in Week 1, which is roughly in line with previous averages.
“As long as we stay clean in our techniques,” said Hughes, “and just play our game, go out there and compete to the best of our abilities no matter what the refs see, I think we’ll be alright.”