FOXBOROUGH — Gray areas are starting to emerge as NFL referees begin their eagle-eyed gaze on defensive backs, with the new emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact on wide receivers more than five yards downfield.
Those gray areas include the officiating of the rule and how to play within those rules.
If Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner plays the way he played as a member of the Seattle Seahawks over the past three years, he could be prey to the flag-throwing fiesta. He is known for his size and physical style of play, but he may have to adjust a bit. One area of focus is technique, which Browner says is very important for a cornerback.
"That's the key to the game at the cornerback spot," he said in the locker room on Wednesday after practice. "Like they always say, football is a game of inches. So you've got to be technique sound out there in order to make plays and not get beat and not get penalties."
The 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner has earned a reputation for physicality at the line of scrimmage — at a level which sometimes rides the border of what's legal. Browner was flagged for illegal contact in the first quarter of the Patriots' first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, but was not flagged in the second game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I'm just trying to keep my eyes to where I would place my hands," Browner said. "Just make you be tighter on honing in on your craft. That's just what I'm trying to do, so I won't cost the team in the long run. A penalty like that could lose you a big game."
Browner may have to adjust his game a little, but it may not be that easy. Safety Devin McCourty said that the players can't think about changing their whole style of play to accommodate the rules emphasis; that would increase the risk of giving up big plays and touchdowns.
When faced with the decision of whether to take the penalty or give up the big play, Browner has a clear preference.
"You don't think about that when you're out there," he said. "You want to just play freely and try to eliminate the penalties, but at the same time, when you're between a penalty and a big play, I'd rather take the penalty than give up the big play, because the big play could ultimately be a touchdown, where illegal contact could cost you five yards and a first down. I'd take the penalty, but ultimately you don't want the penalty. You want to play technique sound."
The Patriots have improved against big plays over the years; in 2012, they allowed a league-high 74 pass plays of 20 yards or more (4.6 per game), but in 2013, that number dipped to 55 (3.4 per game), which was still 11th-most in the league.
Browner was part of the Seattle Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary that took the league by storm from 2011-2013. Absent Browner in the Super Bowl, cornerback Richard Sherman and the rest of the Seahawks' defense stifled the Denver Broncos' receivers, and held quarterback Peyton Manning and the record-setting offense to just eight points.
If the flags keep flying at this rate in the regular season, it could be tough for a team to borrow the Seahawks' blueprint on their way to a Super Bowl win.