The Detroit Lions felt victimized by two brutal hands to the face penalties assessed to defensive end Trey Flowers on Monday night, flags which significantly contributed to the Green Bay Packers kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired. Those two penalties sparked yet another officiating firestorm for the NFL to put out.
But while those two fouls came in high-leverage, fourth quarter situations — and helped the Packers score 10 points on their way to a division-best 5-1 record — they were just two fouls. The Bears have been flagged for illegal use of hands/hands to the face a mind-numbing eight times in 2019, easily the highest total in the league.
No other team has been flagged more than four times for it.
The Bears, collectively, were flagged twice for illegal use of hands in 2018 (defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Akiem Hicks were the offenders). 2019’s breakdown encompasses three units and quite a bit of frustration: Cornerback Prince Amukamara (3), left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (2), and right guard Kyle Long, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (1).
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So on Tuesday, we asked around the Bears’ position coaches to get their take on why all these hands to the face penalties are occurring in Chicago, and also their thoughts on the high-profile mistakes made by Clete Blakeman’s officiating crew in Green Bay on Monday.
“You just gotta avoid it,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “There’s times where it happens, times where it doesn’t happen, especially when you get your hands on sweaty, slippery guys in the fourth quarter, it’s going to happen.”
Long, prior to his season-ending injury, said officiating crews previously would mete out warnings of sorts for hands to the face. Perhaps baked into those were an understanding of what Rodgers said — sometimes, these things just happen unintentionally in such a physical, fast-moving sport.
Now? Seemingly any contact with a player’s face — facemask or helmet — is whistled.
“Those guys don't seem to get it as far as people's heads are moving all the time,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “What I read this morning, one of the things that was important about it is that (a player’s hand) stays there and that it's kind of an act of getting an edge by doing it. You just want to prevent that.”
Still, even while some of these hands to the face fouls aren’t preventable or are just straight up blown calls, there are coaching points for these players on both sides of the ball.
“You just gotta watch the release of that receiver, keep (your) eyes down,” cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend said. “Sometimes it’s incidental when a guy ducks his head, but you gotta focus on putting your eyes where they should be and that’ll force him to keep his hands down.”
So that’s the coaching point for Amukamara, at least. For Rodgers’ defensive linemen and Ted Monachino’s outside linebackers, it’s similarly all about hand placement.
Rodgers said a lot of the rushes he teaches his players involve hand strikes near an offensive lineman’s armpit, which if executed correctly won’t allow for the possibility of a hands to the face penalty. And for guys like Mack, Monachino said they need to be aware of keeping their hands more toward the middle of a lineman’s numbers and not anywhere higher near the collar or facemask.
Because while the second of the hands to the face penalties called on Flowers was admitted as a blown call by NFL VP of operations Troy Vincent, his hand was close enough to left tackle David Bakhtiari’s face that a blown call became a possibility based on what he’s coached to do.
“As a protector, they’re taught to keep their face out,” Monachino explained. “So as he’s getting driven back, he’s got his head back so he can do that. From the side, that doesn’t look very good, right? But that pass rusher, Flowers, he wasn’t the reason that his head was back. It was because David Bakhtiari is a good player. He wants to get his face out of there so he can have a chance to recover.”
So it wasn’t like Bakhtiari flopped or sold the penalty like he was suited up for Manchester United and not the Green Bay Packers. But with the NFL making hands to the face a point of emphasis in 2019, anything that looks remotely like it is liable to be called.
Monachino said he’ll use those two calls against Flowers as coaching points this week, not to remind them of how sub-optimal the league’s officiating has come across this year, but to remind his players of where their hands need to be to make sure officiating mistakes don’t happen, let alone reasonably-called penalties.
And at some point, the Bears’ string of hands to the face penalties aren’t just on the officiating crews calling their games or random bad luck. They’re on the coaches and players for not getting the league’s message that anything contact close to an opponent’s face isn’t acceptable.
“Those are judgements now,” Hiestand said. “Their eyes are on that a little bit, so we've got to do a better job.”