Several outlets have been commenting on the fact that defensive backs with the Buffalo Bills were spotted wearing oven mitts in the early stages of training camp. Marcel Louis-Jacques, the newly-appointed Bills reporter for ESPN, has indicated that the goal is to teach the back end of the defense to maintain tight coverage without getting “grabby.” The ultimate goal is to decrease defensive holding and pass interference penalties.
Louis-Jacques notes that Tre’Davious White credits defensive backs coach John Butler for the idea. Per White, playing with the mitts on was “difficult to do, but something that will help us in the long run.” We can’t be sure if it helps until the games are played, but we can set a baseline to compare to later on.
Penalty tendencies by player
Will there be charts? Of course. Here’s one to set the baseline per player for the projected starters (Tre’Davious White and Taron Johnson) and those battling for it (Levi Wallace, E.J. Gaines, and Kevin Johnson). Data is taken from the 2017 and 2018 seasons and includes declined and offsetting penalties.
Trying to be comprehensive with this, we have counts for both types of penalties as well as yards. Holding yardage is mostly a function of count but defensive pass interference can give an idea of how far down the field a corner is on average when they’re guilty of this.
The column we really wanna look at though is the snaps per flag on the far right. Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace only have one season of data. Kevin Johnson and E.J. Gaines have had trouble staying on the field for the last two years. As a result, none of these players are a fair comparison to Tre’Davious White whose continued health and presence on the field we’re all praying for.
Anyway, the number in that column represents how many plays you can expect between penalties of the oven mitt variety. For reference purposes Tre’Davious White has been fairly highly-penalized in his career and it’s not a bad goal to try to lower his volume. E.J. Gaines and Levi Wallace have been quite good at avoiding these kinds of penalties. Kevin and Taron Johnson, not so much. As a group, they grade out roughly at White’s level which means John Butler has the right idea.
Penalty tendency by team
Here we can get into the fancier stats I’m known for regarding penalties because it’s all Bills data. This is a rundown of defensive holding and pass interference flags for every cornerback that earned one as a member of the Buffalo Bills during the 2017 and 2018 seasons (the McDermott era).
Once again we’re including declined and offsetting penalties. For readers new to advanced skaretracking penalty data, I’m a big proponent of counting these toward a player’s penalty tendency. This is because declined penalties only “don’t count” because something worse happened and offsetting penalties mean that your team’s error wiped out what would have been a positive play.
By count, Tre’Davious White still looks like he’s in a league of his own. This is, however, still a matter of how much more he’s on the field than the rest of the list. Cornerbacks accounted for 7.9% of penalties for the team. That may not sound like much but remember we’re only talking two penalty types here and only three players each year of the total roster. If we included things like facemask penalties, roughness, etc. corners would be even higher.
It’s almost poetic how Phillip Gaines and E.J. Gaines are on such different ends of the yardage spectrum. I included yards affected even though the numbers are low. For these penalties we have negated sacks or tackles for loss that the flags negated. Conversely, penalty yardage is sky high thanks to defensive pass interference which is the rare penalty that can exceed 15 yards at a time. Just ask Phillip Gaines.
Where we see things truly get out of hand is downs given. As a reminder, an automatic first down from a fourth would tally three downs with my charting. With that out of the way, corners account for nearly one-fifth of all of the free downs given up by Buffalo in the two year span. And to reiterate only on two specific penalty types. This fact and the high penalty yardage explain why these flags account for 12.7% of the entire team’s Harm Rating for the two year span as well.
After crunching some numbers I’m all in on John Butler’s plan. Cornerbacks are one of the most heavily-penalized positions in the league. The high volume of flags pairs with a high propensity for harm, creating a lethal combination. On the defensive side of the ball, holding and pass interference calls are a great place to try to reduce self-inflicted wounds.