This NFL preseason has many shades of 2014, with an NFC Super Bowl champion looking to repeat and a brash rookie quarterback trying to win the starting job in Cleveland. The most striking similarity, though, might be the overwhelming number of defensive penalties thanks to new rules and heightened enforcement.

Four years ago, when the Seahawks were preparing for a title defense and Johnny Manziel was entering his ill-fated rookie season, the NFL was handing out defensive holding and illegal contact penalties like never before.

That preseason was dominated by the color yellow. As Sports on Earth’s Mike Tanier (now of Bleacher Report) indicated, there were fives times as many defensive holding flags than in the same period in 2013, and instances of illegal contact increased tenfold. Those were shocking numbers, and many prognosticators warned of the “end of defense” and games dragging on and on.

NFL fans and teams are facing a similar situation this preseason, after the league implemented a new tackling rule focused on player safety. Under the new rule, a 15-yard penalty is assessed when a defender “(lowers the) head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.” That has resulted in some admittedly baffling calls:

As you might expect, current and former NFL players from both sides of the football aren’t pleased:

Even coaches appear unclear on how to adapt to the new helmet rule. During a press conference on Aug. 13, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the challenges the rule presents. His answer was indicative of how teams are struggling to guide their players:

“Yeah, well that rule has been in place now for several weeks, so we’ve talked about it. We’ve worked on it. We’ve played a game. We’ve spent time on it. It really comes up in games more than it does in practice. Although there have been some practice examples that we can teach from and that we’ve identified to the players so that they all can see it and not just the individual that’s involved. It’ll have more applications in games, but we’re aware of it. We’ve taught it. We see plays from other games that we watch, whether it’s a preseason game from last week or games that we watch from last year as we’re getting ready for a team, situations that could come up. Our coaches would talk about that as the right way to do it or possibly not the right way to do it based on the new rule. We do that on the kickoff rule, the intentional grounding rule. There’s been some other modifications that it’s a little bit different than what it is, so when those come up we talk about them. But they’ve all been shown the specific example of ‘This is what it is,’ so at least we know what the standard is, or think we know.”

So to recap: There’s confusion all around.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

But all is not lost for fans of defense.

The Washington Post recently reported the league is set to discuss the rule in a conference call this week, and while major changes aren’t expected, there might be some clarification on how it’s supposed to be called and enforced. Meanwhile, an NFL source told ESPN the league is looking at a three-year window to allow for adjustments, similar to how it handled penalties involving defenseless players.

The league has also already begun refining its approach. Al Riveron, the vice president of officials, is set to release a video offering guidance on how the rule is to be enforced on the field.

So, the rule itself is still a work in progress. But there are two other points to consider.

First, as with many new rules implemented by the league, there’s a learning curve for both players and officials. NFL official Brad Allen did his best to manage expectations at a press conference in early August.

“Up until now, we haven’t seen these plays. OK? The players haven’t experienced this rule,” he said, according to NESN. “We’re going to have to get a library, and, frankly, in preseason, we may throw and then go back and say, ‘No, this is really not what we want.’ …

“(In) the preseason, we want to err on the side of putting the flag on the ground and then evaluating if it’s correct. We want to be right by the time we get to the season. So, will it be subjective to some degree? I think it will. We have to remember that safety is a priority, but there are a number of fouls that are subjective.”

In other words, once the league gets a chance to review some of the hits flagged above, it’ll likely agree they shouldn’t have been called.

Second, we can look back at the consternation in 2014. During that preseason, it was feared the excessive defensive holding penalties would continue into the regular season. While there was an increase, it wasn’t nearly the same jump the league saw in the preseason. In 2013, there were 171 defensive holding penalties called – an average of .67 per game for a total of 827 yards. In 2014, there were 216 defensive holding penalties called – an average of .84 per game for a total of 1,054 yards.

So relax, football fans. As the NFL continues to balance the quality of its product with player safety, it’ll continue to miss the mark at times. This uptick in penalties isn’t a cause for concern – not yet, at least.

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