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Penalty Recap: Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons

Gallant lads, bedecked in blue; despite their flags, they made it through

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In a game NOBODY expected them to win, the Buffalo Bills pulled one out over the Denver Broncos Atlanta Falcons this past Sunday. I mean...SHPADOINKLE! Now let’s all forget a couple gray area calls on the field, passing yards, and all that nonsense. It’s time for Skarekrow’s Penalty Variety Hour.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Count and True Count

Count reflects the number assessed, true count is the number thrown (includes offset and declined)

Yikes! The Buffalo Bills ended up comfortably above the league rate per game in assessed penalties. They didn’t do so bad when compared to True Count. This occurred to Denver last week. What the data is showing is that teams can count on getting called between 8-9 times per game this year, with 1 or 2 declined or offset. The Bills didn’t get an offset or declined this week, which is probably a fluke. But for this week, it means they were hit relatively bad.

The Atlanta Falcons on the other hand did quite well. Nearly three less thrown than normal and they had two declined. Overall it was a very clean game for them. I know there were a couple things by the refs I’d categorize as “murky at best,” but this at least suggests that there wasn’t a systematic “screw job” by the officials.

Yards and True Yards

Yards is the standard assessed total, while True Yards are the total change in field position (ex: penalty calls back a good run, the yardage on the run is added in here)

Huh...weird. Despite the Bills coming in high with assessed count, they’re decently under with the assessed yards. That suggests a high number of procedural penalties (typically five-yarders), but we’ll dive in soon enough.

The Falcons did better than the Bills, but interestingly, their low total in assessed yards should be expected based on the low count. That isn’t to say they didn’t do well, because they did.

With True Yards, league data isn’t available and this is where we start getting into dives you’ll only find in my Variety Hour. The Falcons didn’t have a single yard beyond what the refs penalized them for, which is rare. It suggests their penalties didn’t wipe out any field-changing opportunity. In comparing the two teams, the Bills tacked on 39 yards beyond what was penalized, widening the gap between the two teams.

Penalty Harm

The star of the show! My homebrew stat that assesses a Harm Rating based on True Yardage and opportunity change (free downs, negated points, etc., full explanation below).

Atlanta Falcons

The Stories: Keanu Neal had a pass interference, but since he didn’t prevent a big catch by Charles Clay the Bills elected to keep their stats. One could argue, “no harm, no foul” here. Same with Eric Saubert and his illegal block. That was on the same punt as the Brooks Reed holding call, so someone was getting a free pass.

That holding call, and the ones by Levine Toilolo and Sharrod Neasman were all nothing more than the assessed yards. Same thing with Devonta Freeman. There was literally no more to the story for the Falcons this week.

Their total for the day was 4.5 Harm which is pretty damn good. This translates to “penalties did not have any significant impact on our game.” To put it in perspective, Carolina is leading the league with just over four total flags per game (just over three assessed) for about 30 yards. That’s not a pace I expect them to be able to continue.

Buffalo Bills

The Stories: This...doesn’t look as promising as the Falcons’ day. There’s plenty of boo-boos to go around at least. John Miller’s false Start, Kyle Williams’ and Lorenzo Alexander’s neutral zones and Jordan Matthews’ offensive pass interference flags; all were strictly assessed yardage. None pose a serious problem by themselves, but they add up. For the second week in a row, Tyrod Taylor attempts to mock me and my work. His 0.5 Harm for Delay of Game looks accurate, but the stat doesn’t judge intent. This was a planned penalty. It had no bearing on the field goal attempt when Atlanta didn’t bite on a neutral zone/offsides/encroachment. The more accurate rating would be 0.0, but damn my objective measurement process!

Tre’Davious White’s pass interference was for six yards and gave up one free down. Atlanta had been 2nd and 7. Kaelin Clay’s illegal block wiped out a 9 yard run by LeSean McCoy plus the 10 yards on the penalty. These are both penalties that make things a bit easier for the other team, but shouldn’t kill you over the course of 60 minutes.

Leonard Johnson’s call wiped out a 3-yard sack in addition to the yards, and gave up one down. Atlanta had been 2nd and 3. Soon after, Lorenzo Alexander moved them up the five yards I mentioned before. These things were nail biters for Bills fans as it was the last attempt for Atlanta to get ahead. Compared to other penalties on the day they weren’t that bad, but it shows how no stat perfectly captures context.

Finally, we have Eric Wood wiping out 21 yards and a first down (from second) on a Shady run. Last week Shady had an 18-yarder called back. Shady might start looking better when his runs start counting.

Buffalo’s grand total comes out to 12.4 Harm. While that’s not catastrophic, it’s representative of a day where penalties played some part.


Atlanta definitely had the better day when it came to penalties. No matter which stats you like, Buffalo had more penalties for worse damage. Atlanta fans have some discussion points on other things the refs weighed in on, and I think that’s a fair conversation. But penalties shouldn’t be a part of it.

On the other side of things, Bills fans wondering about the quality of the win can come away feeling a little better. Buffalo put themselves in deeper holes than necessary and still managed to pull off the upset.

I’ll end on some quirky facts:

Three of the six flags called against Atlanta were on special teams (and two of four assessed). That’s drastically off kilter. Last year, about half were offense across the league, with special teams in the teens, percentage wise.

After Buffalo kicked things off with three flags, Atlanta earned the next six (which is all they had). Yep, that means the Bills had the last six to create a tasty penalty sandwich.

Seriously just a weird day all around.

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)