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Penalty recap: Zaniness abounds as Bills topple Steelers

Seriously, it was a wacky week

Fellow lovers of hidden knowledge: Have you ever stumbled on something so obscure and crazy that you’re practically bursting to share it but feel deep down that the right time will never come? Well, guess what. Once in a great while it’s the right time. And I’ve been waiting a looooooong time to discuss one of the rules that came up Sunday as the Buffalo Bills took down the Pittsburgh Steelers.

[Maniacal cackling ensues]


Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

If it felt like the Bills had a lot more flags than the Steelers there’s a simple explanation for that. They did. It wasn’t even particularly close. The Bills almost matched the Steelers’ total in one play actually. This isn’t the thing I’m excited about though, and the chart covers this pretty well so let’s move on.

Penalty Yards

This set of charts starts to allude to the fun thing but we’re not quite there yet. It has plenty of wackiness to digest on its own though. Despite more than doubling the Steelers’ penalty count, the Bills were assessed for less yardage. That’s a little wacky.

Turning our attention to the right-hand set of bars, the Bills negated a huge chunk of yards via flag, flirting with doubling up. That’s also a little wacky. The Steelers somehow gained yards back. We’ve seen that before. To drop by 21 yards though is real wacky. Especially when you find out how they got there. Heh heh heh!

Penalty Harm

Pittsburgh Steelers

The defensive pass interference on Mike Hilton is straightforward. It occurred on a third down and was assessed at 35 yards. That’s 2.0 + 3.5 = 5.5 Harm.

The too-many-men-on-the-field flag is a bit zany but it’s still not the big one. Stefon Diggs had gained three yards and a first down. With the first down already gained, the harm is the difference in outcomes or two yards. That’s three of the yards out of the 21 above. Let’s discuss the other 18. At length.

Fans might recall that Henry Mondeaux’s roughing flag was paired with an illegal formation on Buffalo. If social media is any indication many people were confused on the outcome. Why was one flag assessed rather than both offsetting? Time for some obscure ****.

Over the years I’ve heard a good many of you lament something along the lines of “Well their flag is a worse one, they shouldn’t completely cancel each other out.” They don’t always. Let me introduce you to the rule of “15 yards versus five yards.” That’s not very catchy so let’s call it “5 v 15” to make it easier to remember.

The NFL actually agrees with the fans to some extent, and have made it so some flagrant penalties can be assessed even if there is a “double foul.” The NFL uses that term rather than “offsetting penalties” because, as we’re discussing now, they don’t always offset. There’s no simple version of this rule but the idea starts off easily enough. If one team is hit with a 15-yard flag and the other team a five-yard flag, the 15 yard flag is assessed.

Easy right? Not so fast. It’s not every five-yarder. If Allen were called for intentional grounding for five yards that would have negated the roughing. If it was a flag that came with a 10-second runoff...that would have negated the roughing. There’s a convoluted set of exceptions to 5 v 15. Let’s move on to this exact flag.

As noted, the Bills were called for an illegal formation. This is a straight up five-yarder with no other considerations, so the rule applies. Josh Allen connected with Stefon Diggs for 18 yards. Usually a roughing the passer call is assessed on top of the result of the play. Not here though. By rule the down is replayed at the previous spot.

Did you do the math? We’ve all seen big penalties mitigated by things like “half the distance to the goal.” But has anyone ever seen a team benefit by three yards on a roughing the passer flag? That’s technically what happened. The illegal motion was declined and thus doesn’t “count” by the usual standards. Thinking more philosophically, you can argue a benefit for both teams with the ultimate conclusion being that, overall, the Bills came out ahead. Heck with that though, it’s hilarious to think that the Steelers pushed the Bills back a few yards via penalty.

You’ve likely guessed the answer to this already, but to confirm—the answer is “no.” Head coach Sean McDermott is not allowed to decline the flag. This also opens the door to that philosophical victory for the Bills. If Buffalo could have declined it, the Steelers would then accept the illegal motion. Rather than being 15 yards ahead of the previous spot they’d be five behind. Instead of “losing three” from the 18-yard gain it’d have been 23.

The Steelers had a total of 5.4 Harm, which is an incredibly clean day. Really, it was just the pass interference call that mattered.

Buffalo Bills

I spent a ton of time on the 5 v 15 stuff so forgive me some brevity on this side of things this week. Most of these are pretty straightforward anyway. Rather than a longer breakdown here’s a short set of notes.

  • Mitch Morse’s holding call wiped out a 28-yard gain by Josh Allen. Technically it’s not a bad call, but if you felt it was a bit weak so did I. The grab and pull were there, but “material restriction” seemed to be a bit of a stretch.
  • The same thing applied to Matt Milano’s defensive holding call.
  • I alluded to this above, Gabriel Davis and Darryl Williams were called for flags on the same play. The Steelers declined both. The flags occurred on third down and Pittsburgh really didn’t want to allow the Bills to replay a down with a goal-to-go situation.
  • Kinda weird how long they took to deliberate on a lot of calls but in the end I feel like the crew called it pretty well.

The Buffalo Bills had 9.2 Harm, which is just on the right side of the ten-point cutoff that serves as a good rule of thumb. None of that matters though and not because of the win. It’s because I finally got to have a 5 v 15 article.