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Penalty recap: Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills

I bet everyone’s been “holding” their breath for this. Like the o-Line. Get it?

Hey everyone! It’s time for the most important analysis of the Buffalo Bills vs Pittsburgh Steelers game. Penalties! As a reminder for regular readers, and an introduction for new ones, the idea here is to assess the impact of called penalties on the outcome of the game. While occasionally I dive into the “fairness” of calls, that’s not the focus. Also, I rarely bring up no-calls here (and won’t this week as there were plenty going both ways). Feel free to comment though. And if you’re not sure how the calculations are made ask away, there are no secrets here.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

I know many of you already have this down, but for those potential new eyeballs, count is the number of penalties assessed (what’s discussed most of the time when penalties come up). True count adds in declined and offsetting, with the rationale that this gives us a better indicator of penalty tendencies. The player violated a rule, and it didn’t count only because something worse happened on the play.

With that out of the way, these charts are pretty clear in what they’re showing. The two teams were roughly equidistant from league average. The Bills were on the wrong side of that equation. Speaking of those averages, after doing this for a few years I now feel confident in saying they’ll come down in the next few weeks. That’s not a guarantee that BUFFALO’S count will come down, mind you.

Penalty Yards

This is similar to above but True Yards factors in yards that were negated due to penalty. You might have noticed an anomaly there. We’ll get to it in just a second. First, I’ll point out that the assessed yards mirror the chart with the counts. The Steelers had a pretty clean game. The Bills? Not so much.

On that anomaly, how did the Steelers GAIN yards? They didn’t really. I’ll give more detail below, but this happens from time to time when a team elects to accept a penalty despite gaining positive yards on a play.

Penalty Harm

Pittsburgh Steelers

To reiterate, feel free to ask for the full formula in the comments. The short version is that penalty harm considers things beyond the assessed yardage. Two defensive offside penalties on the usual stat sheet look the same (five yards). But if one gives up a free first down? Well penalty harm rates that one harsher. Lost yards, downs given up, negated points or turnovers all get assessed.

Since this is the first of the year, I’ll bullet point these rapid-fire style:

  • The too-many-men-on-the-field flag was declined as the Bills used the free play to gain 37 yards on a Josh Allen pass to Gabriel Davis. Declined penalties always rate 0.0 Harm.
  • Chase Claypool’s unsportsmanlike conduct was assessed at half the distance to the goal for 12 yards. Assessed yards are rated as 1/10 of their total, coming to 1.2 Harm. A bit of commentary here as I was convinced Micah Hyde’s swipe at Claypool drew the flag. That would have been a really bad flag.
  • Kevin Dotson’s false start was also half the distance to the goal for four yards or 0.4 Harm.
  • Alex Highsmith’s offsides is a bit weird and caused our anomaly above. Assessed at five yards, the Bills had gained five on the 2nd-&-7 play. By accepting the penalty the Bills lost those yards, so it’s a wash on field position or 0.0 Harm.
  • Juju Smith-Schuster was flagged for a false start, which I pretty much never discuss. Because they’re pre-snap there’s never anything like negated yards, downs, etc. They’re nearly always five yards too. However, it’s a little know fact that ball placement is usually pretty precise BUT the game record rounds yardage. Occasionally, this leads to weird situations where a penalty is counted a bit off. That’s what we see here. Rounding makes this officially a six-yard flag. FUN!
  • Like Highsmith, Melvin Ingram was called for being offsides. Unlike Highsmith, Ingram’s flag came on 2nd-&-5. The infraction led to a first down. That gave the Bills one extra down for free (second to first). Downs are rated as a whole point per down. So 5 yards plus 1 down is 0.5 + 1.0 = 1.5 Harm.

In total, the Steelers accumulated 3.7 Harm over the course of the afternoon. Typically, 10.0 is a relatively good cut off between “good” and “bad” days. This suggests that penalties had very little impact on Pittsburgh.

Buffalo Bills

I won’t go into details for every Bills flag so we’ll take some shortcuts. Two flags were declined (holding calls on Feliciano and Dawkins) and rate zero each. The false start on Emmanuel Sanders is “meh” for reasons noted above. Levi Wallace’s defensive holding occurred on first down and was yardage only.

Circling back to offensive holding Mitch Morse, Dion Dawkins (three total), and Darryl Williams led to four assessed (six total with the declined). That’s a problem. A really, really bad one. In addition to 40 assessed yards, they wiped out 23 yards gained. That’s 63 total yards of negative change credited to the offensive line.

The defensive backs had a rough day with flags too. Levi Wallace’s holding call was yardage only for 0.5 Harm. His defensive pass interference call was for 26 yards and two downs. That’s 2.6 for the yards, and 2.0 for the downs for a total of 4.6 Harm which outdoes the Steelers’ entire day by itself. Yikes. Let’s GIF it!

When I GIF it, there’s usually commentary on the rule etc. for those of you who might not know what to expect in these recaps. For the Wallace flag, it’d be a hard argument to suggest this flag wasn’t warranted. Wallace restricts both arms at points and collides with the receiver before the ball arrives. Some of this is fine if Wallace is playing the ball but he clearly is not.

As bad as the harm was for Wallace, it only gets worse for Tre’Davious White. He was flagged for holding, but unlike Wallace it wasn’t just the five yards. White intercepted the ball on the play and this was negated. Turnovers give your team four downs of opportunity and, as such, are treated like negated downs for 4.0 Harm on top of the assessed yards. It should also be noted he had an 11-yard return on the pick, which was also negated. Add it all up and that’s 5.6 Harm. Is stacking all that on piling on for a flag? You bet it is. The goal of penalty harm is to flag critical penalties that can change the outcome of the game. Mission. Accomplished. Let’s GIF this one too.

This call was panned, but honestly it’s not a bad one. You can see Diontae Johnson’s momentum shift a bit thanks to the hand on the shoulder, and then he dips under Tre’Davious White’s right arm and White’s hands sandwich the receiver. I’m not suggesting this is egregious, but White does impact the route via contact so it’s hard not to see the ref’s point here. It’s unfortunate because this had serious “Play of the Game” potential.

When the dust settled, Buffalo racked up 17.5 Harm which is a dreadful day. But you may have already known that.