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Penalty recap: Bills have a pretty clean day in Kansas City

The Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs both had a pretty boring day, but I swear there’s some good nerdy stuff in here anyway

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills pulled off an upset victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium. Prior to this game, the Bills were trending the wrong way with defense and the niche department of penalties. The Bills turned both around for the week. While that may sound like there won’t be much to discuss with penalties, I can assure you there’s some fun stuff in here (if you’re a nerd).

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Count and True Count

Count = number assessed. True count = number assessed + number declined/offset

AWWWWWW YEAH! The reason for my advanced stats gets to come out and shine this week. Both the Bills and Chiefs had the exact same amount of penalties assessed at 6. This is less than one under league average and is usually a pretty good day. More importantly, both teams were only called 6 times, with no declined or offset penalties all game. The count suggests a clean day, and the true count clearly shows it.

Now to pull back the enthusiasm slightly. The game was called by Bill Vinovich’s crew. Vinovich’s team has been calling just a hair more than 5 penalties per team each game which suggests both teams were above this crew’s normal rates by a touch. Interestingly, Vinovich’s calls have a good amount of disparity between home and visiting teams. Looking at it that way, the Chiefs were two penalties higher than the Vinovich rate of about 4 called on the home team per game. The Bills were about right, as Vinovich has been assessing just over 6 penalties each game on the visitors.

Yards and True Yards

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

The reason for Harm ratings (below) and more advanced stats becomes yet more apparent when looking at assessed yards. Both teams were flagged for 50 yards. This means that looking at a box score suggests both teams had identical penalty performances.

Let’s move right on the chart and look at our first advanced stat of true yards. The Bills negated 22 yards of positive play via penalty while the Chiefs only negated five. We see some separation here and our first inclination that the Bills might have had a rougher go of things with the flags.

Penalty Harm

Kansas City Chiefs

The Stories: Half of the penalties on the Chiefs were procedural 5-yarders. There’s not much to see there. The other three probably won’t shock anyone either.

Ross Travis was called for an illegal block above the waist on a kickoff return. Due to where the penalty occurred, it was only good for eight yards. Since the return was in progress, it was also only partly negated due to penalty with 5 yards coming back. 8 yards + 5 yards = 1.3 Harm. Another way to translate the penalty is that it set them back for a total of 13 yards. Charcandrick West had taken the ball to the 21, but the penalty pushed them back to the 8.

Daniel Sorensen decided to double dip in the yellow laundry and was called for roughing the passer and a face mask penalty. The face mask came at the end of a big gain by Charles Clay. With the play earning the Bills a first down, Sorensen’s penalty here was strictly yardage and 1.5 Harm. The roughing call also came after the Bills had earned a first down. The play ended at the KC 24-yard line, and was assessed for half the distance to the goal to explain why it landed at only 1.2 Harm.

The Chiefs had a clean game with a total of only 5.5 Harm. A big concern with penalty buffs is the “when” and Kansas City’s low total is in large part to the flags happening at relatively opportune times.

Buffalo Bills

The Stories: The first to note is the scale difference between the two teams. Most of these bars are quite a bit lower than Kansas City’s and that’s a result of the high harm on Dawkins. For a parallel, the holding call on Leonard Johnson falls in at 1.3 Harm and is pretty close to the high water mark for the Chiefs. If you follow the Harm stat, you likely concluded already that Johnson’s holding call negated 3 yards. In this case, during a punt return.

Dion Dawkins had the worst penalty of the day. His holding call wiped out a 19 yard gain from Travaris Cadet and a first down (from second). 10 assessed yards + 19 negated yards + 1 down = 3.9 Harm.

Typically, procedural penalties don’t have a story to tell, but we get lucky this week. Jerry Hughes and Kyle Williams were both flagged for a Neutral Zone infraction. Eddie Yarbrough was called for offside which is pretty much the same thing for the harm concept. Collectively, these are quite interesting. All came on 3rd and long. Respectively, the line to gain for each sat at 11, 14 and 16 yards. As a result, none gave free downs. More importantly though, these penalties are often associated with trying to get a step on the offense for a pass rush. As a pattern, they suggest that Leslie Frazier was cooking up an aggressive 3rd down defense much of the day.

There’s a chance you recall that E.J. Gaines was called for unnecessary roughness for “hitting” the head of a defenseless receiver. I won’t go into the controversy of the call (because SB Nation did that for me below), here but will note it landed at 2.5 Harm which represents a pretty bad penalty. In addition to the 15 yards, it gave up a free down.

Buffalo’s total Harm comes in at 9.2 on the day. From past usage, this suggests a day that’s only on the fringe of “bad.”


The Chiefs had a clean day and the Bills weren’t too far behind. From a game day perspective, the numbers suggest that penalties had little to do with the game’s outcome. For deeper meaning, reading between the lines is key.

Offensive holding rears its ugly head again. As was noted earlier in the year, the Bills were wiping out positive plays at a furious pace. It’s unfortunate that they haven’t completely put it behind them and at this point, we should probably just assume it’ll happen a few more times in the next few weeks. With an inordinately high amount of these self-inflicted wounds coming in the running game, it could come back to bite the Bills in the posterior.

There was some buzz about the team’s preparation and even commitment to the coaches following three sub-par outings where the unfortunate constant was a terrible defense. As indicators of effort and aggressiveness, our boo-boo defensive penalties this week suggest the opposite. While fans shouldn’t wish for more neutral zone infractions, they should hope that the intensity they represent is present for six to ten more games.

Oh, and here’s SB Nation calling the Gaines penalty the worst one of the week: