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Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals: penalty recap

The refs in black fled across the gridiron, and the penalty flags followed

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

We’re all disappointed that our beloved Buffalo Bills dropped a winnable game to the Cincinnati Bengals. Unless you’re a Bengals fan reading this I suppose. Good news, everyone! Despite defeat, there’s some neat penalty things to talk about in this game.

I’m gonna give a spoiler this week as it’s VINDICATION TIME for this project! Both teams had six penalties for 71 yards. For real. Isn’t that crazy? It sure didn’t feel even though did it? Which is why advanced stats and “stuff I made up because it sounded good” metrics are so important. We can dig deeper to see if it was truly equal. Hint: It wasn’t.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Count and True Count

Count = Number assessed. True Count = Number Assessed + Declined/Offset

Our first impression for both teams should be quite positive. They both landed at one penalty less than league average in assessed. Buffalo had the only declined and this is the beginning of where the teams start to separate. Still though, Buffalo was about 1.5 under the league rate of thrown flags and Cincinnati did very well at about 2.5 under. Based on this, it’d be easy to conclude both teams had a good day. Hint: That would be wrong.

Yards and True Yards

Yards = Yards assessed. True yards = Yards assessed + Yards affected by penalty

This is telling. The league rate is about 60 yards assessed per team, per game. Despite low counts, both teams land at close to 12 yards over the average amount. That suggests we won’t be talking about too many False Starts and Procedural penalties below. Both teams averaged about 12 yards per penalty. To put this in practical terms, that’s more than a holding call distance per flag.

Here’s where the real separation begins though. For potential new readers, True Yards is where I start breaking away from the typical data set, and therefore it’s not available league wide. The Bengals negated or otherwise affected just 8 yards to go with their 71. That’s not a big deal.

The Bills on the other hand jump way up with 57 yards called back or impacted by penalty. FIFTY SEVEN YARDS in a FOUR-point game! Hint: It gets worse

Penalty Harm

Full method linked below, but this is a rating scale that judges a penalty using a formula that includes True Yards and opportunity changes (downs given or negated, score or turnover negated)

Cincinnati Bengals

The Stories: Can I just say that I love coaching penalties? Not that they make the game better. More like, they give me something crazy to talk about. Bills fans should recognize this unsportsmanlike conduct from earlier this year. The moral of the story is that if you have someone standing on the white stripe and trip an official, you’ll get 15 (or 12 in this case as it was half the distance to the goal). Also, that was a great run by Brandon Tate.

Cody Core’s illegal block was pretty standard “always look for a flag on punts” material. Trey Hopkins wiped out a small gain of 2 with his holding. The illegal substitution was also standard fare. William Jackson’s pass interference, while more harmful in terms of field position, also isn’t abnormal all things considered. As predicted above, not much procedural going on, but at least the low volume of penalties limits the damage.

The most interesting one of the day was Carl Lawson and his 4.1 Harm on an unnecessary roughness call. On 3rd and 7, Vontaze Burfict had dropped Tyrod Taylor for a 6-yard loss. In the fourth quarter of a close game, it kept the drive alive. The 4.1 score comes from 1.5 for assessed yards + 0.6 for sack yards negated + 2.0 for free downs. If the Bills had pulled it off, this would be a major talking point. Hint: The Bills have larger talking points.

Buffalo Bills

The Stories: Did I foreshadow it enough? Let’s rattle off some inconsequential ones real quick. Kyle Williams’ Holding call was yards only. If Taylor completed his pass to Zay Jones, the illegal formation would have been accepted I’m sure. Wait...only TWO inconsequential penalties? Crap...

Adolphus Washington blocked someone incorrectly when Jordan Poyer scooped up the fumble and was running with it. The penalty itself was 15 yards, and based on where it was called, it took off 3 yards of Poyer’s run.

Jerry Hughes found a roughing the passer. In his defense, even the commentators said it was ticky-tack and I agree. Like other gray area ones, I’ll defend the flag being thrown but also say I wouldn’t have been surprised to not see that one called either. Anyway, on 3rd and 21 the Bills had made a stop at midfield. Two free downs and 15 yards closer to the end zone is not what the Bills needed in a tight game.

Greg Mabin gave up two downs himself and 16 yards, basically mirroring the Hughes penalty, but when the Bengals were already in field goal range. Also not ideal in a tight game. The Bengals scored a field goal on the drive with the Hughes penalty and a touchdown on the drive with Mabin’s. I’m not saying they WOULD have stopped those points, but it gives you a better shot than offering up free first downs.

Let’s talk about offensive holding now. From the Bengals 36, the Bills are facing 3rd and 10. Already within range for Steven Hauschka and his miracle leg, all the Bills need to do to (likely) gain some third quarter momentum is to NOT SCREW THIS UP. Taylor scrambles for 10 yards! At the least, Hausch-Money is now in “automatic” range. But in comes Dion Dawkins and a 10-yard holding penalty. Which also wiped out the 10-yard scramble and two more tries at something nice. A harm rating of 4.0 is indicative of a pretty bad penalty and this is a good illustration of why.

Quiz time: Which stat line do you prefer?

19 Carries for 63 yards or 20 carries for 107 Yards

Take your time, I know this is a tough one. Apparently Logan Thomas preferred the first stat line, because he negated a 44-yard run from McCoy. In the fourth quarter of a 4-point game. The Bills would have been at the Cincinnati 19. I said it last week, I expect the Bills offense to look better when Shady’s big runs start counting. In the last three weeks, penalties have taken 99 yards away from Shady. NINETY-NINE YARDS! Shady’s home run threat is a big part of his game and it’s being systematically erased by holding calls.


Now that you know how I feel about this game... let’s get back to cold, calculating, heartless numbers.

The Bengals landed at 9.9 Total Harm. From using this metric last year, that’s actually a pretty decent day. One where a flag or two might have made you cringe, but not a day where the yellow sinks you.

The Bills however, had their worst game of the season with 18.8 Harm. The teens is where I start calling it a rough day. To land near to twenty is definitively in the “bad day” category.

And that’s not all the bad news. The Bills are trending the wrong way. They started weeks one and two with 7 harm, jumped to the lower teens the next two weeks, and now flirted with 20. On a day where the offense needed all the help it could get (and the defense generally obliged), the Bills managed to take two nearly certain field goals off the board AND provided assists on two Bengals scoring drives.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that LeSean McCoy is making good plays and it’s only a matter of time before they count (I hope).

For the sake of reference:

Thanks, as always, to for the data

Here's the information on what this stat is (if you're a new reader)