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Penalty Recap: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens

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The Bills didn’t do so hot in Baltimore, including in the area of avoiding penalties

Welcome, fans of the Buffalo Bills, to the week one penalty recap. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Penalty Harm returns with the regular season! The bad news is that the Bills offered up plenty of data points. The worst news is that the frogurt is also cursed.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty counts

Neither the Buffalo Bills nor Baltimore Ravens did well using the traditional metric of “how many flags were thrown.” The 2018 season kicked off with an average of eight flags assessed per team (the left set of bars). Both the Bills and Ravens helped to raise this average.

Both teams were even worse when it came to flags thrown, landing at twelve apiece. For those of you new to my recaps, I put stock in offset and declined penalties, as they help create a sense of a team’s tendency to commit penalties. The term “True Count” is used to reflect the total yellow laundry.

Penalty yards

Despite a high count, the Buffalo Bills were nearly average in assessed yards. That suggests a tendency to skew toward procedural penalties, such as false starts. We’ll see if that’s what happened shortly. The Ravens, then, were even more skewed in that direction. While they were one higher than league average in assessed count, they were well below that average in assessed yards.

For true yards, any positive gains wiped out by a penalty are counted in that total. We’ll have a couple examples of this below. The NFL does track a similar statistic, but not exactly as I do it. Therefore my metric of “true yards” is not available league wide. What the chart easily shows though is that the Bills negated 24 yards in addition to their assessed yards. Baltimore only negated 17.

Penalty Harm

Baltimore Ravens

For a brief rundown of what penalty harm is, an explanation can be found at the bottom. For those of you familiar with the project, here we go.

At 1.0 Harm or under, the penalty is typically a boo-boo rather than a “shot ourselves in the foot” situation. The Ravens had quite a few of these. For these or any other penalty I don’t explain here, feel free to ask away in the comments. There’s oodles of data that isn’t included every week.

Matt Judon was lucky that his unnecessary roughness call occurred so close to the end zone. It was assessed as eight yards (half the distance to the goal) and gave the Bills a first down from second for the remainder of the 1.8 harm.

Alex Lewis wiped out a 14-yard gain to land at 2.4 Harm (10 yards plus 14 yards).

Brandon Carr was called for defensive pass interference. He set the Bills up with a first down and gave them a free 20 yards for a total of 3.0 Harm. This was the fourth play in a row with a penalty and gave the Bills their best chance at a touchdown all day. Judon’s flag kicked off the chain of events. Wedged in between were flags from Dion Dawkins and Vlad Ducasse.

And yeah, the GIFs are carrying over into the regular season. Below, we have the most egregious penalty of the day for Baltimore. Willie Snead’s offensive pass interference flag wiped out a touchdown, which is about the worst way a penalty can hurt a team. The 7.0 Harm for that factor adds to the 13 yards (10 assessed, 3 impacted) for 8.3 Harm. Snead’s actions were necessary to help the Ravens score, too, but he could easily have avoided the flag by being more subtle in his “rub” route.

The Baltimore Ravens ended the day with 18.5 Total Harm. After doing these for quite some time, a team should aim for a number at 10.0 or below. Low teens usually indicates some impact on the game. If the Ravens hadn’t run away on the scoreboard, their penalties would be a talking point.

Buffalo Bills

A repeated point that I’ve seen this week is that the Bills wiped out a ton of big plays via penalty. Eh. Not really. Only four penalties wiped out any gain. Three of these were for less than five yards. Only John Miller’s holding call (4.4 Harm) negated a big play. The 15 yards he wiped out from Josh Allen to Jeremy Kerley came in the fourth quarter when the game was already long lost. Also critical to the conversation is that the Miller flag and only one other on the day negated a first down.

One could argue that the high volume of penalties disrupted the offensive rhythm, which is a more valid argument. To be clear, though, penalties were not a major factor in explaining Buffalo’s offensive struggles.

Deon Lacey made a critical error and lucked out when Tremaine Edmunds bailed him out on the next snap by forcing a fumble. The Ravens were 4th and 5 backed up on their own end of the field and Lacey was caught in the neutral zone on the punt attempt. This gave the Ravens a fresh set of downs, and earned Lacey a 3.5 Harm flag.

Taron Johnson had the worst penalty of the day for the Bills at 4.8 Harm (seen below). Johnson’s defensive pass interference gave up 28 yards and two free downs. The pass was, in all probability, uncatchable, making this call a fringe one. How the contact is sold by the “victim” might also have been a factor.

While the Bills didn’t have any single really bad penalty, they had several that were pretty bad. They combined for 20.4 Harm, which is a very bad day.


What is Penalty Harm?

Traditional metrics of count and yards give very poor context into how badly a penalty impacted the game. Deon Lacey’s five yarder is a prime example. On the stat sheet it goes down the same as a false start, but it’s easy to see the two penalties are drastically different in outcome. Penalty Harm is an attempt to quantify other ways in which a flag hurts a team to red flag the worst penalties for discussion.

How is it assessed?

  • 0.1 unit of harm for every yard assessed
  • 0.1 unit of harm for every yard negated by penalty
  • 1.0 unit of harm for every down the penalty gave back to the opponent (or took away from your team like intentional grounding)
  • 3.0 units for negating a field goal, 7.0 for a touchdown
  • 4.0 units for negating a turnover