Level the playing field: Five ways the NFL could rejuvenate defense

Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire

The video of this NFL season might as well be called: Quarterbacks Gone Wild.

The touchdowns have piled up as the concepts and innovations are celebrated along with the newest generation of golden-armed passers and fresh-faced playcallers.

"... If you're on defense, they don't let you do a damn thing to stop (offenses). It's not a fair fight anymore." Former All-Pro CB Champ Bailey

There are 31 quarterbacks -- THIRTY-ONE -- completing at least 60 percent of their passes. Sixteen of them have at least 15 touchdown passes after nine weeks and 16 wide receivers are on pace for 100 receptions. Statistics that were once milestones have become business as usual.

The NFL’s decision-makers and rules mavens have set offenses free to the delight of a points-adoring, fantasy-football-playing public. So much so that there might be an August night in 2028 or so in Canton, Ohio, where the Hall of Fame class is two quarterbacks and three wide receivers because, well, they’ve got all the numbers.

"[The NFL] made it that way; it’s what they want," said Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback. “I look at it now and think if you’re on defense, they don’t let you do a damn thing to stop it. It's not a fair fight anymore."

Former Rams and Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who spent 15 years on the league’s competition committee, including a stint as the committee’s co-chairman, said: “I can’t really recall a significant discussion we had about a rule that would benefit, solely, the defense that wasn’t simply safety related ... whatever it’s been ... it’s all designed to keep the scoring up. Over time when all those things have been discussed people said, ‘Well, it will all balance out.’ I think we’ve seen, if you look at it objectively, it hasn’t balanced out -- at all."

How could the league make it more fair without putting quarterbacks in harm’s way or rolling back safety initiatives? ESPN spoke to dozens of current and former players, former head coaches, defensive coordinators and personnel executives to see what could be done to level the playing field for the defense.

From that, here are five proposals either for change or enforcement of rules (current rules are from the rules book circulated by NFL Operations):

1. Make illegal contact a five-yard penalty, not an automatic first down

The rule: “Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.”

The penalty for illegal contact is a five-yard walk-off against the defense and the offense is given an automatic first down, no matter the down-and-distance when the foul occurred.

“The punishment doesn’t fit the infraction. You stop somebody on a third-and-12 and a flag goes down for a touch foul 25 yards from the play and it’s an automatic first down. Let defenses play second-and-5, third-and-5," said ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, a former safety who played in 77 games in his seven-year career with the Rams, Packers, Redskins and Bills.

The opportunity to stop an offense that doesn’t get a new set of downs would give defenses a chance in a possession on penalties on second and third downs instead of rewarding the offense for “a touch foul that had nothing to do with the play,” Bowen said.

2. Expand the chuck zone to 10 yards

The rule: “Within the area five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, a defensive player may chuck an eligible receiver in front of him. The defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone, as long as the receiver has not moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.”

Denver Broncos defensive back Chris Harris Jr. said “that one would work right now, right this second, but that’s why (the league) will never do it because they know it would work. That's a fair fight, I'd love that.”

Fisher said it would also force offenses to reconsider some of what they’re doing now, but saw a problem in the enforcement.

“It’s enforced right now at a soft seven (yards) or so,” Fisher said. “If you move it to 10, maybe it gets enforced at 12 (yards) or so, I think you’d get more pass interference because the ball is going to be in the air a lot when the DB is engaged at the top of the route at 10 (yards).”

3. Enforce downfield blocking rules

The rule: “On a scrimmage play during which a legal forward pass is thrown, an ineligible offensive player, including a T-formation quarterback, is not permitted to move more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the pass has been thrown.”

Just seek an opinion on this one these days and defensive coaches around the league say -- loudly -- offenses are repeatedly scoring touchdowns on plays, especially run-pass option plays, that should be flagged as penalties because linemen are “four, five, six yards down the field,” Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe said.

The rule is on the books “and they just need to call it,” Wolfe said. “The linebacker has no chance, he’s playing run because the linemen are run blocking down the field before the throw.”

"That's one that will definitely have to be addressed," Fisher said. "I have no doubt on that."

4. Enforce offensive pass interference on pick plays

The rule: “It is pass interference by either team when an act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball ... Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched.”

When the New England Patriots slowed the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf offense in Super Bowl XXXVI with a decidedly hands-on approach to defense, pass interference and illegal contact each became a “point of emphasis” for the officials and they have clamped down since.

However, while offensive and defensive pass interference are listed together in the NFL rule book, they are not called with the same frequency.

“That one is totally off,” Bailey said. “(Offenses) are picking every play in a bunch formation, and in the red zone, and offense and defense are committing the same amount, but for every three or four on defense called, you might get one on offense. Just call it. Especially in the middle of the field where the umpire used to be.”

5. Add an eighth official to crew

The rule: "The game shall be played under the supervision of seven officials: the Referee, Umpire, Down Judge, Line Judge, Field Judge, Side Judge, and Back Judge."

Fisher said it’s time to go to an eight-man crew like the major conferences in college football have been doing since 2014. The NFL moved the umpire from the defensive side of the ball to behind the quarterback in 2010 as part of safety concerns for those officials.

“But that middle of the field area where the umpire was is where a lot of these fouls are getting missed,” Fisher said. “The eighth official can then handle all that stuff in the middle of the field where the umpire used to be. College puts guys there, they’re used to playing it, we need to put that back, that guy on the defensive side. We have the feeder system, guys are already officiating that area of the field in college.

“Also flip the referee and the umpire, put the referee looking into the face of (a right-handed quarterback),” Fisher said. “ ... Then the referee has a better view of hits on the quarterback because he’s not looking through the back of the quarterback and the umpire has a better view too. Because right now, once the pocket starts to collapse the referee’s eyes come off the left tackle and go to the quarterback for hits on the quarterback. And time after time we’ve seen on the film that right end on the edge pulled down at the top of the rush because the referee is on the quarterback. Call it, just call it, bring back the edge-rushing component.”

In the end even the most hopeful know, deep down, the league wants scoring. But there are those who believe it will cheapen offensive statistics and corrupt historical greatness if defenses don't get a little help.

“Look, when I was with the Bears (1986-1995), we had a goal board -- hold a team to less than 17 points, 200 yards passing, 40 percent completions," said Dave McGinnis, who spent 30 years in the NFL. “Hell, that’s a quarter now, now your board would be 35 points, 500 yards and 65 percent passing. Defensive guys are just hanging on right now and they don’t have tenure, you know. People are going to get fired year after year because their hands are tied.”

Bailey said: “You can’t touch the quarterback, you can’t touch the receiver ... there isn’t much left ... You have to play top down, make tackles in front of you, catch, tackle, catch, tackle, don’t let anything over your head and close it down in the red zone. That’s all you have.”