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Film breakdown: How the Packers got away with constant holding against Lions

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The Lions and Packers were playing by two completely different sets of blocking rules in Week 3.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Proper and improper blocking

During the Sunday loss to the Green Bay Packers—sometime around the third quarter, I think—I told the rest of the Pride Of Detroit staff that I could not believe that the Lions’ defensive line was getting so little pressure. It seemed impossible to me that Rodgers could have so much time to scramble around and ad lib his way to big plays with no holding going on. Of course being out of market, I could not see what was happening, and Ryan Mathews let me know that I really needed to watch the game once the tape became available.

BillySimsMadeMeDo suggested I see if there was anything strange going on with the blocking and check if there were a lot of non-calls: “if truly is, it wouldn’t seem to be a stretch to prove since the film don’t lie.” That sounded like a good idea, and so once the game was over, I started watching each snap from both sides and focused on the offensive line of each team. I have to be honest here and admit that I only got through the first quarter, but that’s because it did not seem like watching anything more was necessary. The differences between what the Lions and Packers were doing was so stark and consistent that spending more time was a waste.

But before we get to the findings, let’s review what legal blocking by the offensive line looks like. In particular, what are offensive linemen permitted to do with their hands? POD reader Redwolf333 had a nice fanpost about various things that prevent holding penalties from being called. I want to take it an additional step back and examine not just what is prohibited, but what offensive linemen are supposed to be doing during legal blocking. It’s not enough to know what bad blocking looks like; we need to be able to recognize when it’s proper.

Terminology review: hand placement “within the frame”

The main thing people think about when talking about holding on blocks is some kind of grabbing or grasping. Often, the mental picture of what holding “looks like” involves parts of the jersey or uniform being pulled on:

Offensive holding penalties used to be called when a lineman grabbed his opponent's jersey, and the part being grabbed often was the sleeve.

We’ll come back to that, but it is important to note that some grabbing or grasping is in fact allowed, and it all depends on what the player is latching on to. If you’ve seen the movie The Blind Side, you’d know that blockers can hold on to the chest area of the defensive player they are trying to block as long as they keep their arms inside and between the armpits:

Now, this is Hollywood. Is it really true? The answer is YES! Here’s the relevant part of an actual instructional video on offensive line blocking techniques by former NFL guard Mike Schad, who was the offensive line coach for Temple University from 1999-2004 (link to video):

Now let’s take a look at the hand real close. His heel struck with the hand, and then he grabs—and that’s one thing people do not understand about pass blocking! You are—can grab—you’re allowed to grab in offensive pass blocking if you do it within the frame here. I’d even get his hands a little closer in here [moves OL hands further into center of chest].

Once you get outside of the frame, if uh Dave grabs up here [places OL hand on DL shoulder] or in the back of his shoulder here, this is offensive holding. But if he goes to the position he’s been coached to inside, it’s not holding. That’s one thing people don’t understand in pass blocking football.

Now, the defensive lineman is going to try and get the offensive lineman’s hands off of him by doing either “wax on/wax off,” “sand the floor,” a rip move, or a swim move. Here’s current Meridian High School (MS) head coach and former Meridian offensive line coach Calvin Hampton in another useful video. It shows what he calls a “quick hands drill” on how the blocker is supposed to respond to re-establish his hand positioning against various pass rush moves:

The key here is that the offensive lineman is trying to keep the pass rusher square to his position. If the rusher gets the blocker’s hips turned or can get his inside hip even with the blocker’s outside hip, it’s over. The blocker is using footwork and angles to ensure his hands and arms can maintain control inside the frame of the pass rusher.

How does the NFL itself teach officials to call holding?

As mentioned above, Redwolf333 pointed out how pass rushers using a rip move may not draw a holding call. There are a number of other things that the NFL teaches its officials to consider as factors when deciding whether or not to throw a flag. The following points are taken from the NFL’s Football Officiating Academy Guide.

Holding is such a contentious and difficult call that it gets its own special section in the guide. Here is how the league itself frames the problem (emphasis added):

This is probably the most difficult area for officials to master. We’ve all heard coaches and/or fans say “You could call holding on every play!” Very little if any truth lies in that statement. Holding is subjective to the degree and effect on the play. It also changes from the level of competition. What is holding in lower level games may or may not be holding at the high school, college, or pro level. What if we called holding on every play until the players quit holding? The players couldn’t play, the coaches couldn’t coach, and the fans would leave. It would be you, the official, as the focal point, and that would lead to a very long afternoon or evening and hardly resemble the game of football. When making a judgment on holding try using these philosophies: Call any major take down that will embarrass you or your crew if it were not called. Even if it is not a take down, call holding at the point of attack. Did the blocker gain an unfair advantage from the hold?

We will come back to this later, but consider the grousing from basically everyone (even us) after the Week 2 game against Tennessee:

Specific points the NFL makes in teaching officials on how to evaluate when to throw the flag (again, emphasis added):

Did the defender have his jersey stretched or have to reach for the ball carrier with one arm? Was he taken in a direction by the hold that he didn’t want to go in the first place? Did the defender give up on his pursuit? These are all factors to help make your decision. If you decide it’s a hold and throw the flag, be able to describe in a few words what the foul was. Know if it was a take down, a hook and restrict, a jersey stretch, a twist and turn. If you can’t put it into a category of holding than it probably wasn’t a foul. The same holds true for defensive holding on pass receivers. Did the hold impede the receiver from running his pass route? Did the QB even look to this receiver before throwing to the other side of the field? No effect, no foul for holding.

Important Terms used when Officiating Holding:

Point of Attack: area around the ball where key blocking for the play occurs; attention of the covering official should be focused on blocks at the point of attack. The point of attack can change as the play develops

Engagement/Disengagement: initial action of blocker may grab defender (engagement) but releases when defender beats blocker (disengagement)

Advantage/Disadvantage: was the defender put at a disadvantage by the actions of the offense when he had the blocker beat

Effect on the Play: did the action of the blocker have an effect on the play? If a slight hold occurs away from the play, you can probably talk to the blocker about the possibility of a foul if the action was at the point of attack

Brief recap

Good blocking technique involves staying within the frame of the defender, grabbing only on initial punch and releasing when beaten or disengaged. Bad blocking practices that are illegal and considered holding will:

  • involve grasping the shoulders, arms, jersey outside the frame of the defensive player being blocked
  • potentially affect the outcome of the play, usually by being at the point of attack
  • put the defender at a disadvantage, usually by redirecting the player’s motion in a way that he did not want to go, while the defender is still trying to make a play

What the Lions were doing

For the most part, it looks like the Lions are taught proper technique and attempt to block legally. We will consider a few examples of places where the Lions could have been called for holding, but here’s what their technique normally looks like.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (10:42). First-and-10 at the Detroit 39.

This is the Stafford scramble following the unsportsmanlike conduct “throat slash” penalty on the opening drive. Notice all blockers are keeping their arms tight to the frame and engaging inside. Reiff’s man tries to spin back and the defender’s right arm gets hooked up under Reiff’s right arm: this is the kind of situation covered by the rip move exception to holding via hooking.

If you watched this play all the way to its conclusion, Decker has a late grab, but it’s after Stafford had already taken off downfield to his right. Since the slight hold occurred so far away from the play, it is the type the officials are instructed to avoid throwing. The main thing is that while Decker’s guy is still in the vicinity of the play and can have any kind of effect on the play, he’s maintaining an inside hand position.

2016 at GBY 1Q (9:11). Third-and-2 at the Detroit 47.

This one is interesting because a quick glance may make this look like there’s holding going on, but there are a few notes about technique here that make it not holding. While Reiff and Decker have been “beaten” around the edge, the other angle shows Decker is going to get the benefit of the rip exception. As for Reiff, he actually looks like he’s been torched around the edge but somehow manages to get an open left hand shove to the front of 56 DE Julius Peppers’ right shoulder to throw him off the angle.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (8:32). First-and-10 at the 50-yard line.

The interesting thing here is to look at Warford. Yes, he has his hands outside the frame, but he is not actually grabbing or grasping anything. Everyone else is up inside the frame on their man.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (7:09). Third-and-2 at the Green Bay 42.

Again, you have everyone with their hands inside, grabbing stuff on the chest area of the pads or the armpit of the pass rusher. Riley Reiff stands his guy up and resets after his initial punch back inside.

2016 at GBY 1Q (0:53). First-and-10 at the Detroit 21.

While most of the Lions’ blockers are perfectly legal here, Larry Warford has his right hand jammed up in Kenny Clark’s left sleeve. Grabbing the shoulder pad and lifting up, he is redirecting the pass rusher with an illegal hold. This was probably not thrown because it is in the middle of the mush pile and hard to see: Warford got away with one here.

Another penalty missed on that play, which was surprising since it involves a player safety issue was the defenseless player hit on Ebron:

Difficult to see at full speed since it happened so fast, but this is technically an illegal hit by the league’s definition because 48 LB Joe Thomas is leading with his shoulder into the head/neck area of Ebron. Even if Warford had been called for a hold, it should have been offset by the personal foul here. Neither penalty was called, so it is not quite as unfair of an outcome as if only one flag had been thrown.

For the most part, the Detroit offensive line appears to be using legal methods and possibly got away with one or two holds that could have been called. Now let’s take a look at what the Green Bay offensive line was doing.

What the Packers were doing

Right off the bat, we get a good look at the interesting interpretation of the rules by the Packers’ offensive line. That sleeve grip that Warford did once? It honestly looks like it is taught as a standard technique for their line.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 25.

At the bottom of the line in the first panel, Tyrunn Walker’s right sleeve shoulder pad is being gripped and pulled by 65 RG Lane Taylor. In the middle of the line, though, Haloti Ngata gets an even rougher time. Right as the ball is snapped, 73 C JC Tretter immediately grabs Ngata’s right sleeve with his left hand and pulls with it to establish control. From the back side, visible in the second panel, is 70 RG TJ Lang grabbing the other sleeve and using that grip to turn the Lions defensive tackle. In the third panel, we can see that Tretter keeps pulling on jersey to hamper Ngata’s attempt to spin out.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (14:31). Second-and-7 at the Green Bay 28.

The next play, there is a lot going on: the play is a delayed dump to Eddie Lacy to Aaron Rodgers’ right. We are going to track two different things going on here. First, on the right side boxed in red we have Kerry Hyder up against 75 RT Bryan Bulaga. On the left side boxed in purple we have Devin Taylor coming on a T-E stunt behind Tyrunn Walker. They are working against 69 LT David Bakhtiari and 65 LG Lane Taylor with an assist from 73 C JC Tretter.

Let’s consider that purple box first. In the top pane, you can see Walker getting the double team from Taylor and Tretter. In the second pane, you can see Walker has thrown back Taylor, and Bakhtiari is trying to follow Taylor “through” Walker. Tretter switches off Walker onto Taylor, but during this process, Bakhtiari trips Walker (going to the ground in the second pane). In the third pane, we have one pass rusher from the stunt on the ground and the other pass rusher from the stunt being pulled down by his collar. One is an illegal trip (possibly accidental but still a penalty) and one is a hold; neither is called.

Now go back to the right side in the red box. The first panel looks fine, but in the second panel something looks amiss. Suddenly, Hyder’s left shoulder is very blue! What you’re seeing there is his shoulder pad: Bulaga is doing the same thing we saw earlier from Tretter and Lang (and to be fair, Warford). By grabbing Hyder’s sleeve and shoulder pad then lifting up, Bulaga is illegally controlling the pass rusher by grasping outside the frame. Continuing through the third frame to the bottom split frames, we can see Bulaga maintains the hold on Hyder’s arm all the way until Lacy is tackled. This is a great way to ensure backside pursuit cannot run down the back from behind. If you look at foot position on the field, you can see that the hold was maintained while Hyder traveled roughly four yards from the 21 to the 25 yard lines.

2016 at GBY 1Q (13:28). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 45.

The third down play was a very quick pass to move the chains, so nothing blocking-wise to analyze, and thus we move ahead to the next play. This is a shotgun draw to Lacy right up the gut. Notice as Lacy runs by, Haloti Ngata is reaching with one arm to try and get Lacy while 70 RG TJ Lang has fistfuls of jersey pulling Ngata back away from the run lane. Remember what the NFL officiating guidance said to look for:

  • Did the defender have his jersey stretched or have to reach for the ball carrier with one arm? (both are true here)
  • Was he taken in a direction by the hold that he didn’t want to go in the first place? (being pulled away from Lacy)
  • attention of the covering official should be focused on blocks at the point of attack. (Ngata is exactly at the point of attack)

Lang went immediately for Ngata’s sleeve at the snap, which is what is in the inset box from the All-22 angle behind the offense. It’s not as clear in a still, but in the wider broadcast shot, it’s obvious that the blocker’s right hand is at Ngata’s left sleeve and not grasping inside the frame (Lang did not release and reset his hand during the play). This is a hold meeting pretty much all of the requirements for a flag.

The next snap had a great close up replay that makes it very clear exactly what this sleeve/pad grabbing technique looks like.

2016 at GBY, 1Q (13:01). Second-and-5 at the 50-yard line.

The Packers went with play action and hit a 33-yard pass to Randall Cobb down the right side against Slay. The television broadcast went to a fabulous zoomed in high definition replay—which I guess was supposed to showcase the great protection Rodgers had—and flashed two outstanding examples of the kind of holding technique being used by the offensive linemen.

First, right at the snap we have the center Tretter going fishing inside Haloti Ngata’s sleeve for a pad to grab onto:

As Rodgers turned to look downfield, screaming across our field of vision from our right to left is Taylor with his hand jammed vertical up Tyrunn Walker’s sleeve:

Here it is in all its full motion glory:

The replay pans and everything is moving fast, so if you don’t know what to look for, it is difficult to spot. I think this is probably why the Packers get away with it on pretty much every play. Notice that I have not really cherry-picked anything: we are going right in order and these are four of the first five offensive plays of the game. The rest of the first quarter basically looks the same, but A) more examples probably don’t add much to the explanation and B) this article is already getting really long and I should probably stop.

How to level the playing field when one team chooses not to obey rules?

If there was a random occurrence of grasping on an isolated play like Warford doing it once on the Lions’ side, that would merely be a bad one-off play. When play after play all coming in a row on the same drive and involving all five Green Bay starting offensive linemen doing the same thing, that’s too strong a pattern to be anything other than intentional technique being coached by the team. This puts a team like the Lions—who seem to be trying to play “fairly” with league-approved techniques—in a bind.

The officials do not seem to be willing to call the penalties enough to deter the cheating teams: “What if we called holding on every play until the players quit holding? The players couldn’t play, the coaches couldn’t coach, and the fans would leave.” That is a statement that exactly follows Gary Becker’s deterrence rationale in Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach (p.14):

If the aim simply were deterrence, the probability of conviction, p, could be raised close to 1, and punishments, f, could be made to exceed the gain: in this way the number of offenses, O, could be reduced almost at will. However, an increase in p increases the social cost of offenses through its effect on the cost of combating offenses, C, as does an increase in f if b > 0 through the effect on the cost of punishments, bf.

In other words, the league can reduce the number of holding offenses via raising the probability of getting called for the penalty to near-certainty by throwing the flag every time. But that comes with a cost to the league in the quality of fan enjoyment through interruptions in play and negating exciting plays like Aaron Rodgers scrambling around to throw a long pass.

If the Tennessee game is any indication, it is a cost the league is probably not willing to bear in the long run. The alternative means to leveling the playing field by advocating the Lions start cheating as much as the Packers is thoroughly distasteful. Hopefully everyone is repulsed by the notion that an appropriate way to make the game equal is a race to the bottom where all teams cheat as much as the worst cheaters since the policing is lax. That is not a sport I would want to spend my time analyzing, and I hope it is not a game anyone else wants to spend their money or time being a spectator of.

I don’t know what the answer is, and it is not a good idea as some have joked for players to take justice into their own hands against either opposing players or shoddy referees like Carl Cheffers a la McNugget hunting in The Longest Yard. One thing is certain, though: the Lions and Packers were clearly not playing by the same rules. The officiating was not balanced, and there is a legitimate complaint that both teams need to be held to the same standards for a fair game to be played.