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Penalty Recap: Buffalo Bills at Tennessee Titans sets a Harm record

Seriously? Another penalty article this week?

Yeah, I know. Enough with the penalty articles already! Well stop reading them. This is really on you, the reader. Anyway, here’s the usual weekly recap. Due to the saturation of penalty talk this week, the sheer volume of flags, and the highly likely result of you not liking my stance on the pass interference calls this week I’m not going to do a ton of commentary. The charts are neat this week though!

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

Shockingly, the assessed counts for both teams weren’t much higher than average. If it felt like it, that’s because the true count was quite high with 11 apiece. The game had an unusually high number of declined flags. I would like to discuss that (see below in the Titans’ Harm section) Sorry, this might be another long penalty article.

The league averages crept down very slightly. The same is true for yards below. Six weeks in and I think we’re about to plateau. The league numbers above are likely what a typical game will see from here on out.

Penalty Yards

Believe it or not, Buffalo was not only average for assessed yards, they were way ahead of the Titans. A lot of this is due to a defensive pass interference call on the Titans that was credited for 39 of those assessed yards. When it came to negating yards, the Bills [ahem] ran away with it. You can likely guess what play is largely responsible for that, but if you’re not sure the answer is below.

Penalty Harm

Tennessee Titans

Like I promised, let’s discuss those penalties head coach Sean McDermott declined. The first of these was the ineligible downfield called on Ben Jones. This occurred on 2nd & 6. Accepting the penalty would make it 2nd & 11. Declining pushed it to 3rd & 6. Effectively this is a choice between giving the Titans one play to gain six yards, or two plays that gain an average of 5.5 yards each.

Similarly, a holding call on Nate Davis gave the Bills a choice between 3rd & 8 or 2nd & 16. In math terms that’s one play to gain eight, or two shots that need to gain an average of nine yards each.

From a math perspective the ineligible slightly favors declining but the holding call slightly favors accepting. In reality, both are mathematically pretty similar choices. So why did Sean McDermott decline these? From a playbook perspective (especially with Derrick Henry) the second downs on both of these flags have the entire play book to choose from. The third-down situations favored passing.

And in both cases the Titans did in fact pass on those third downs. The first was incomplete. The second was the miracle catch by Julio Jones (and double flag on the Bills). What I really need to communicate though is that these declined flags were pretty unusual. In order to justify them, it requires a deep-dive understanding of the analytics behind the choices AND overall football strategy. Sean McDermott continues to evolve as a head coach. You might not be expecting to find evidence of it in a penalty recap article, but here’s yet more reason to be enthusiastic about Buffalo’s future.

Anyway, the Titans are all jerks and clearly they deserved every one of these penalties as well as some that weren’t called. Tennessee had 16.6 Harm for the day, which equates to a pretty rough day. Volume was a factor, but that defensive pass interference flag on Breon Borders gave the Bills two free downs in addition to the yards noted above.

Buffalo Bills

I’m only gonna talk about two, and one I’ve already talked about a LOOOOOOOT. I’ll add one fact on that one in a second, but first let’s talk about Emmanuel Sanders’s holding flag. It wiped out a touchdown, five yards of progress, and had ten yards assessed for a total of 8.5 Harm. Negating TDs is never a good thing. I wasn’t going to do GIFs since I did a bunch of penalty graphics for this game but why not. One more for the road.

It looks like a pull that twisted his opponent. We’ve discussed “point of attack” a lot this week and I think it’s clear that it applies here. This is a reasonable call. Now for the doozy.

Yeah, the gigantic bar towering over all others is the Andre Smith holding flag that wiped out the possible game-winning touchdown from Isaiah McKenzie. In addition to the points, it added ten penalty yards into the mix along with an insane 72 yards of McKenzie’s return. It’s also the new record holder for single worst Harm rating since I started this in 2016. The previous “winner” was Auden Tate who, like Smith, negated a kickoff returned for a long touchdown by Darius Phillips. Tate negated a “mere” 65 yards of the return for a rating of 14.5 Harm.


In all, the Bills racked up a season high (barely, see below) of 28.3 Harm. That falls a bit shy of the record that was set last year when the Bills visited the Denver Broncos and infamously negated touchdowns on three separate plays. That game led to an insane 33.2 harm. Though admittedly, 28.3 is still really ****ing terrible.

Weekly Tracking Charts

As a quick note, Smith’s single flag propelled him to the top of the Most Wanted List for the season. Smith had no penalties coming into the game. He had two as noted in the graphic but the first was declined.