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Bills 38, Steelers 3: Penalty recap

I don’t think flags were all that important this week, but let’s have some fun with it

Tennessee Titans v Buffalo Bills Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Remember how I’ve tried to convince everyone that preseason games can be fun because they’re stress free? Well, there’s another way to be stress free in a game, and the Buffalo Bills gave us a shining example of what I mean against the Pittsburgh Steelers. So now that I’ve established we should all be stress free after this game, that frees up all our mental energy to talk about the most important aspect of football: Penalties.

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

Interestingly enough, the assessed flags ticked up for the second week in a row. That’s a bit unusual, but I do mean a tick. The true count, which represents how many are thrown, remained exactly the same. I expect both numbers will come back down before too long, but we may be nearing the season plateau.

Buffalo was below average yet again by a small amount, which is not their norm. Pittsburgh hovered around the mean.

Penalty Yards

Yards followed suit with a small increase, which makes sense with the assessed count also rising a fraction. Pittsburgh still remains around the league rate, but Buffalo intriguingly falls well below average. Typically this suggests a heavy dose of procedural infractions that are boring to discuss.

Both teams negated some yards this week, though this too is slightly skewed in favor of Buffalo. So far, all the usual signs point toward Pittsburgh having the rougher outing.

Penalty Harm

Buffalo Bills

As predicted, there is a healthy dose of boring flags. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs’s false start is ho-hum. Left tackle Dion Dawkins was also called for this, but at the two-yard line so it was assessed short of the usual five yards. It got me hoping we’d see a 99-yard touchdown too to break the team record—but alas, that was not to be.

With the usual stats, edge rusher Von Miller’s offside call only cost the Bills five yards. But this is penalty harm, and there’s more to the story. This one wiped out a sack that set the Steelers back one yard. The negated yardage gets counted, which is why this one is 0.6 Harm.

Cornerback Kaiir Elam’s defensive pass interference gave up a free down in addition to the seven assessed yards. That’s 1.0 Harm for the down, and 0.7 for the yards.

Offensive lineman Ryan Bates also wiped out a down when running back Devin Singletary gained eight yards on a 2nd & 6. That’s 10 assessed yards, eight negated, and one down.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t know a fair number to assess disqualification. A.J. Epenesa was tossed after making (light) contact with an official and potentially mouthing off afterward. It was offset with quarterback Kenny Pickett’s flag for shoving defensive end Shaq Lawson following his completely legal tackle. Offset flags technically net zero Harm, but this could have been impactful, as Epenesa didn’t return to the game. Zero is right in this case, as the defense wasn’t coming back on the field—and even if they had, the game was long over. But in the future, there’s a chance zero won’t feel right.

The Bills landed at 5.7 Harm for the game, well under the 10.0 cutoff between a good and bad day. I don’t want to jinx it, but as you can see in the graphic below, Buffalo has yet to break the 10.0 mark this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers

This is quite a bit more interesting than Buffalo’s list. We have false starts on wide receiver Chase Claypool and offensive tackle Dan Moore, Jr.—which are boring, of course. When it comes to sheer numbers, the offensive holding by tight end Zach Gentry is intriguing. His penalty wiped out a 13-yard gain on 2nd & 7. That’s 10 assessed yards, 13 negated, and one negated down.

Cornerback Josh Jackson’s defensive pass interference was only for four yards, but gave up a first down from second. Low yardage, but more impactful than traditional stats would consider it.

Pittsburgh was called for four unnecessary roughness flags, which is straight up absurd. The Pickett one lands at zero due to offsetting with Epenesa’s DQ. I don’t love Pickett’s reaction. Lawson’s tackle was clean, as Pickett was clearly a runner when it happened.

I saw a few people ask, “How would you feel if that happened to Josh Allen?” A better question is, “How would you feel if this happened to Devin Singletary?” At the point of contact, Pickett was more similar to a running back than a quarterback. So how would I feel if it had been Allen? I don’t like any tackle that looks like it might cause injury, and that applies across the board. That said, scary hits can’t be removed entirely from the game, and sometimes they’ll happen to players we like. It’s emotionally worse, but technically exactly the same. End rant.

Before we go to the flag on linebacker Myles Jack, I want to define a few terms and how I use them.

  • Penalty: As in, “This is a penalty.” What I mean here is that the player performed an action that is a penalty according to the rule. I am not assigning intent to the play, and I distinguish it from the next term.
  • Dirty play: Not necessarily a penalty, but a play I think breaches the spirit of sportsmanship. Here, I am assigning intent. The player is willfully doing something I think they shouldn’t.
  • Dirty player: A player I feel is routinely guilty of actions I call dirty plays.

If you ever see me use these terms, now you know what I mean. Here’s the Jack clip.

This is a penalty, and a dirty play. The flag is 100% warranted, as Jack knows the play is over. Even in this cropped view, you can see a lot of players already pulling up, and they aren’t even looking right at the play like Jack. He then launches into the head/neck area of his opponent, which is the spirit of so many player safety rules. Good discretion by the refs.

For the reasons I’ve already mentioned, it’s also dirty. He’s not trying to make a play, he’s hitting someone for the sake of hitting someone, and in a very dangerous way. I will stop short of calling Jack a dirty player, though. I honestly don’t watch enough Steelers football to call it either way.

Let’s compare to another clip and use my terminology. There were two unnecessary roughness flags called here on Pittsburgh, only one gets to be accepted. You probably remember this play.

The timing here is critical, and I’ll call this a fringe penalty. I like the no-call, personally, as safety Damar Hamlin starts lowering to make the hit prior to what I believe is Pickett clearly sliding. On the first pause, Pickett’s posture has changed, but he could be high-stepping or changing direction. You can see that Hamlin’s posture has also changed in that slide. The second pause has Pickett leaning back to a point I’d say, “yeah, that looks like a slide.” Hamlin is even further into position for a tackle. On pause three, Pickett is more clearly sliding, but Hamlin has already committed to the tackle. In real time, I don’t bat an eyelash if the refs call this.

Now is this dirty? Remember, I don’t think a play needs to be a flag to be dirty. I don’t think it’s dirty, either. Not every quarterback will slide, and Hamlin even seems to be rotating and trying to pull up.

What about the action after the play? I don’t think that’s dirty, either. If I need to go frame-by-frame and still come away with a conclusion that I would be fine if it had been called, it’s close enough to think you just saw a really nasty and really illegal play on your teammate. Shoving a guy after that is considered within the realm of normal sportsmanship, in my opinion.

With that rant out of the way, the Steelers hit 9.7 Harm. Worse than the Bills, but still a decent day.

Weekly Trackers

More weekly trackers for your perusal. I have enough data where I felt it was time for the most-wanted list to appear. Any questions, let me know in the comments.