Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo saw the yellow flag fly into the air and immediately sought an explanation from an official nearby.
Spagnuolo knew there was contact between cornerback Chykie Brown and a San Francisco 49ers wide receiver during a one-on-one drill early in Saturday's practice. What he didn't know was whether the penalty flag was for illegal contact, defensive holding or perhaps even offensive pass interference.
Such uncertainty among players and coaches has been commonplace early in the preseason as teams struggle to adjust to the NFL's vow to make illegal contact and defensive holding a "point of emphasis" during the 2014 season. Flags for such infractions have flown at a dizzying rate through the first week of the preseason, forcing defensive coaches and defensive backs to adjust and ponder other ways to slow high-powered passing attacks.
"It's a big adjustment, actually," Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Having these referees out here, you start to really realize how ticky-tack all these fouls are going to be called. The referees say the same — it's not going to be easy this year. Every game, you're really going to have to be on your P's and Q's after 5 yards as far as touching people."
Smith spoke Sunday after a joint practice between the Ravens and the 49ers that featured a steady stream of penalty flags. During one stretch, there were flags for either defensive holding or illegal contact thrown on three consecutive plays as the Ravens' first-team defense faced the 49ers' first-team offense. There were four penalties alone in a seven-on-seven drill.
In the first 17 preseason games, officials have called 53 penalties for defensive holding, 27 for illegal contact and 15 for defensive pass interference. The six games last Thursday produced 25 defensive holdings and nine illegal contact calls alone.
In contrast, there were 181 defensive holding penalties and 38 illegal contact calls all of last season.
"The [officials] out here that have been with us, they're trying to figure it out, too, [what] exactly they're going to call," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We teach our guys to play good technique. When you play good technique within the rules, then you're going to be fine. That's what we always try to do, and we'll try to continue to do that."
After Sunday's joint practice, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio still was bothered by an illegal contact penalty called on safety Bubba Ventrone during Thursday's 23-3 loss to the Ravens.
"In no way, shape or form was [it] an illegal contact penalty, and the league's already confirmed that it wasn't," Fangio said. "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."
It has long been illegal for defenders to make contact with receivers more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage or to grab a receiver down the field. Both infractions are 5-yard penalties and automatic first downs. However, in recent seasons, teams have lamented that those rules aren't being strictly enforced. Such complaints peaked last year with the physicality of the Seattle Seahawks' secondary, which beat up receivers on the way to a Super Bowl title.
By making it a point of emphasis for officials heading into this season, the NFL is seemingly indicating that too much clutching and grabbing has been allowed. During their annual visits to training camps around the league, officials have shown a video reminder to players and coaches of what constitutes illegal contact and defensive holding. They also have conversed regularly with players on the field to explain why they made certain calls.
"Between 5 and 7 yards, there can always be a call. I don't agree with all of them, but it's always been that same rule. It's just getting tighter now," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "It's not like we haven't already been working to not touch the guy after 5 yards, but now we just have to maintain and basically not go back for seconds and make sure we don't touch him again after I already hit him."
The NFL last made illegal contact and defensive holding a point of emphasis following the 2003 season. According to former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, the result was illegal contact calls going from 79 in 2003 to 191 in 2004.
As part of the new focus on such infractions, the league also has urged its officials to put a greater emphasis on offensive pass interference. However, that hasn't silenced the griping from some defensive players and coaches who feel that the league again is doing too much to promote scoring. As it is, the league is already immersed in the most productive passing era in its history.
"In 10 years, it will just be seven-on-seven and illegal to play man coverage, I'm sure," the Ravens' Smith joked.
Cleveland Browns first-year coach Mike Pettine has had his defensive backs wear boxing gloves during select training camp drills to get guys out of the habit of clutching and grabbing wide receivers. The St. Louis Rams have used tennis balls for the same purpose.
The Ravens' defensive coaching staff, which wants its cornerbacks to be physical at the line of scrimmage, has stuck to more conventional methods, advocating proper technique and good footwork.
"You don't want to play tentative where you don't want to be on your game, but, at the same time, you know it's going to be ticky-tack. So, after those 5 yards, you really can't touch him," said Smith, whose emergence last year coincided with his decision to play physical press coverage. "So, you really do have to cover with your feet."
If the practice sessions and the first preseason game were any indication, the Ravens are still getting used to the increased focus on contact with receivers. Against the 49ers, they were called for two illegal contact penalties and Brown was flagged for pass interference, which was eventually declined.
Brown said after the game that he was just playing "the way I was taught to play," and he planned to make the necessary adjustments. He's not alone.
"That's why we play in preseason," Webb said. "By Week One, we should be adjusted to how to play this game and when we need to get our jams in. There will be a lot of calls, but we will adjust to it."