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Penalty Recap: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots were evenly matched in the penalty department.

In what turned out to be a shockingly close game (for three quarters anyway) between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots there’s a natural element of “what if.” In the case of penalties we often wonder if one more clean play or two may have changed the outcome. For this week the answer is “no.” Penalties didn’t significantly alter the game. We’re gonna discuss them regardless.

Traditional and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Count

The Bills and Patriots were nearly even on assessed count. Six for the Bills and five for the Patriots is neck and neck. Both teams were under the league average for assessed count. When it comes to total flags, it’s dead even at eight. This is for all intents and purposes perfectly average at the moment. There were no offsetting penalties in this game so the five extra between the two teams were all declined. As a reminder, penalties are declined when something worse happened so the three penalties that didn’t “count” for the Patriots still represent times where they made a bad play.

Penalty Yards

The Bills are slightly below average on assessed yards. The Patriots are quite a bit under. Don’t buy into the gap here though. The Patriots negated 18 yards of offense via flags which brings them right up to where the Bills landed. When it comes to penalty performance it’s still a wash at this point.

Penalty Harm

New England Patriots

We have quite a few boo-boos here. Three declined penalties naturally had zero penalty harm. A false start and an illegal formation both had 0.5 Harm as a result of yardage only. Note that there were two illegal formations (the other was one of the declined penalties). This infraction has been hounding the Bills this season and if there’s a silver lining to this game it’s that perhaps the curse has been passed along.

For more serious flags, Chris Hogan wiped out a nine-yard gain. Paired with the ten yards assessed it receives a 1.9 Harm rating. LaAdrian Waddle’s holding penalty also wiped out a nine-yard gain. Based on field position this penalty was half the distance to the goal for an assessed nine yards. It also negated a first down from second. So 9 assessed yards + 9 negated yards + 1 down = 2.8 Harm.

Last but not least we have Julian Edelman’s unsportsmanlike conduct. This occurred on a punt and field position again mitigated the damage. At half the distance to the goal from the nine-yard line it pushed the Patriots back 4 yards. There’s more to the story in my opinion so let’s look at this one.

Edelman has called for the fair catch which establishes him as “untouchable” which is critical for this rant. Lafayette Pitts very clearly starts decelerating to avoid contact and has no reasonable expectation that he should be getting hit by Edelman. As Pitts approaches, Edelman launches helmet-first into Pitts’ facemask. The refs call unsportsmanlike conduct for blocking after a fair catch is called.

This should have been unnecessary roughness and an ejection. This passes all of the tests for a roughness call including that the person being hit has no reason to think contact is coming. Roughness calls by rule include “using any part of a player’s helmet or facemask to butt, spear, or ram an opponent.” That happened for sure. If a penalty is egregious it is grounds for automatic disqualification. Remember, Edelman signaled a fair catch which created the situation in which Pitts was actively attempting to avoid contact. If establishing yourself in a position where your opponents are avoiding contact and then headbutting a guy in the facemask isn’t “egregious” I don’t know what is. The NFL claims to be worried about player safety. “Plays” like this can’t be acceptable.

Anyway, 6.1 Harm for the Patriots on Monday Night Football.

Buffalo Bills

We have a pile of boo-boos over here too. The two declined penalties are zero, of course. False starts continue to have no need to be discussed and there were two of those. LeSean McCoy’s holding penalty was assessed yards only.

Logan Thomas was called for unnecessary roughness on the kickoff to open the second half. At least according to the play-by-play. The call on the field was a personal foul for an illegal block. From the one available angle it appeared to be a block to the back. This spot foul occurred at the 22-yard line and was therefore assessed as eleven yards or half the distance to the goal for 1.1 Harm.

Tremaine Edmunds was called for defensive holding. The five yards was exacerbated by an automatic first down from second. 5 yards + 1 down = 1.5 Harm.

Kelvin Benjamin was flagged for an illegal blindside block. This ended up as assessed yards only. McCoy was credited for his run and the first down it earned. After the penalty the Bills were first and ten, just 15 yards behind where McCoy had taken the ball. This one seemed ticky-tack live and Benjamin was eager to plead his case. Let’s take a real close look and see what happened.

To understand the call we turn to the rule book. Except for specific limitations, blocking is generally allowed (pass interference, holding, etc. are all limits on acceptable blocking). For the flag here, illegal blindside blocks establish the person being blocked as a defenseless player. It’s similar to how normally legal contact becomes illegal when a quarterback is in a throwing posture or a receiver is going up for a catch.

For the rule, it’s clunkily worded by identifying a person as defenseless when “A player who receives a ‘blindside’ block when the path of the blocker is toward or parallel to his own end line.” As the blocker, Benjamin’s trajectory is clearly heading toward his own end line (or end zone) and passes that part of the test. The other component is that the contact has to originate from the person’s “blindside.” This isn’t defined by the NFL so a common meaning interpretation is the one that applies. If defined by an actual “side,” Benjamin hits him on the front. On the other hand, if defined as “blind to the direction the hit came from,” I don’t think Devin McCourty had any clue what happened until the replay. Personally, I think the refs got this right.

Now for the drum roll. Up until now the Bills and Patriots were neck and neck using penalty measurements. The Patriots had 6.1 Harm as noted above. The Bills? Also 6.1 Harm. Neither team had an advantage based on penalty using any metric seen above.