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Penalty recap: Stats don’t tell the whole story

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Despite low penalty stats nearly all around, yellow flags tipped the scales

The roller coaster of flags continues for the Buffalo Bills. While they remain the second-worst league in the team behind the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills have been incredibly volatile. This week against the Detroit Lions, the official log only credits them with three. But stats don’t do a great job with this game. Dive in and you’ll see what I mean.


Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Count

What a weird game. The official stats will show that both teams were well below the league averaged as they focus on assessed flags (left columns). When factoring in declined (five) and offset (two) penalties, both teams were very average. Seven penalties that didn’t count is incredibly high.

Penalty Yards

For the Bills, their assessed yardage is pretty representative of the count. A really low count leads to really low yardage. The Lions on the other hand are a good deal above average despite a similar low count. There’s only one way to get THAT high with assessed yards with only four penalties and it’s called “defensive pass interference.” The maximum yardage for other penalties is 15. That means even four personal fouls would only yield 60 yards.

The Bills negated five yards on top of the assessed yardage. This occurred over two of their three assessed flags. The Lions only negated yardage on one play. Unfortunately for them, it was kinda big with 23 yards coming back.

Penalty Harm

Buffalo Bills

All but one penalty meets the criteria for a “boo-boo” at 1.0 Harm or less. Dion Dawkins had a terrible day, being flagged three times. His two holding calls were declined, as they came on third downs the Bills failed to convert. His ineligible downfield call wiped out a four-yard gain by Keith Ford. Tre’Davious White’s two flags ended up invisible. The defensive pass interference was declined as the catch was made. The holding call was offset by an offensive hold by the Lions. Trent Murphy’s offside was pretty standard fare.

Da’Mari Scott could have had a better debut, with his penalty occurring on the opening kickoff. On the other hand, it’s not exactly uncommon to see an illegal block in the back on a kick return. The penalty occurred at the end of the return and only negated one of Isaiah McKenzie’s yards on top of the ten assessed penalty yards. Since this is the closest thing to an interesting penalty, the math is 10 assessed yards + 1 negated yard = 1.1 Harm.

Ordinarily I’d have a GIF for each team, but none of these are all that exciting. Instead I’ll focus on how Detroit gave the game away and show you two from the Lions. The Bills set a season best with a mere 2.5 Harm. That beats out the 3.5 Harm against the Tennessee Titans.

Detroit Lions

Right away those pass-interference calls jump out. Nevin Lawson’s holding call is somewhat surprising too. With the other four being either declined/offset or offside, we’ll focus on the three that made a difference in the outcome of the game. All three arguably sunk the Lions.

The Lions had struck first and the Bills were looking to answer back. Josh Allen uncorked a long pass intended to Robert Foster. We’ll never know for sure if he should have caught the ball thanks to Mike Ford’s pass interference. The good news for the Bills is that the 43-yard penalty (4.3 Harm) flipped the field and set up their first touchdown for the lead. Take a look below, it’s a pretty easy call.

The Lions took back the lead before the half and both teams struggled to score after the break. With the Bills and Lions trading punts, Detroit caught a big break when Quandre Diggs returned one for 23 yards to midfield. But the entirety of his run was negated by a holding call on Nevin Lawson. The negated yards and ten assessed put the Lions back on their own 18-yard line instead, rating 3.3 Harm. After the Bills forced a three-and-out, they got the ball back on their 39.

On 2nd-and-9 on the ensuing drive, Darius Slay was hit with a 23-yard pass interference call. Instead of a possible 3rd and long, the Bills got a free first down about a quarter of the field closer to the end zone. The drive led to the Bills second touchdown, which turned out to be the winning score.

The Lions finished the game with 11.4 Harm. Above 10.0 is generally indicative of a somewhat rough game. While Detroit did go above that mark, it was not by much and certainly nothing to suggest penalties may have been enough to tilt the game in the Bills’ favor. However, with the precise timing of the three penalties described above, penalties were a major factor in a close game. And while we’re at it, the fourth assessed penalty set the Bills up with 3rd-and-2 and trying to run the clock out to preserve the lead late in the fourth quarter.