Passing game gets massive boost it didn't need

The NFL breaks its own passing records every year. In 2013 the league set records for combined pass attempts per game (70.8), combined passing yards per game (471.2), total passing touchdowns (804) and average passer rating (86.0).

More prolific, more efficient -- that's the way the NFL wants it. This season the spike will be especially dramatic, assuming the league follows through on its preseason initiative. The NFL told refs to strictly enforce illegal contact and defensive holding, and the result was an avalanche of coverage flags in Week 1 of the preseason.

In the first 17 preseason games, officials called 27 illegal contact penalties. That's 11 fewer than all of last season. They called 53 defensive holding penalties, compared to 171 all of last year.

League officials believe the crackdown will show defensive players what will and won't be tolerated. They predict this will result in less contact beyond 5 yards, and less clutching and grabbing. But this is no minor adjustment, according to Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.

"Having these referees out here, you start to really realize how ticky-tack all these fouls are going to be called," he said. "The referees say the same -- it's not going to be easy this year. Every game, you're going to have to be on your P's and Q's after five yards as far as touching people."

Whether the refs keep up this absurd pace in the regular season remains to be seen. But the trend is inexorable, and it's one to keep in mind when choosing between a committee running back and a No. 3 receiver.

Take defensive pass interference. Those flags have been rising annually, from 0.712 per game in 2009 to 0.996 last year, per NFLPenalties.com.

Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was asked, given the way the game is being officiated, how cornerbacks will be able to defend guys like Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall. "You mean, how do you defend players who already are impossible to defend? That's a great question."

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