clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Penalty Recap: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins

The Bills had 99 problems, but a flag wasn’t one

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. The Buffalo Bills lost and everything sucks, right? WRONG! For the first time this season, we have formula anomalies, major penalty controversy that requires nerdy rules explanations, and... well that’s pretty much it. But that should be plenty for a penalty recap. Let’s do it!

Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Counts

I’ve been spending less and less time on these first couple charts, and I’m starting to feel like I’m neglecting a child or something. If you think I need to go back and start explaining these more, let me know, but I think the abbreviated recaps here are probably the way to go (despite the guilt).

The big news here is that the league average dipped 0.38 on the count and 0.34 on the true count this week. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a huge dip in one week.

Penalty Yards

This chart is interesting, and not because of its lopsidedness. It’s not interesting because the league average dropped by 3.79 yards either. No, it’s interesting because Buffalo’s True Yards are lower than the assessed yards. This does happen from time to time, and I’ll explain it more below. But, Buffalo convinced Miami to ditch a nine-yard play to take the flag instead.

Penalty Harm

Buffalo Bills

The Bills had a few boring penalties, like the false start on center Greg Van Roten. The two offside calls on defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones were assessed for zero harm. The one on Jones was declined due to the Miami Dolphins having a better outcome on their free play. The one on Lawson was assessed at zero yards thanks to it occurring at the one-yard line. While it was second down, the assessed yardage wasn’t enough to gain a first, so essentially the penalty was a complete non-factor despite technically being assessed. That’s only the first formula weirdness of the day.

Linebacker Matt Milano’s roughing the passer was yardage only and also not my favorite call. While there’s a bit of a shove and I don’t disagree with the flag, it wasn’t much of a shove. I also hope quarterback Tua Tagovailoa fully and completely recovers from his “back injury.”

If you watched this week’s Skarey Movies, you’ll see my breakdown of offensive lineman David Quessenberry’s holding call. I didn’t like this one either, and it knocked the Bills out of field goal range, which was kind of a big deal.

Cornerback Christian Benford was called for a defensive holding where, yet again, there wasn’t much actual contact let alone any disruption of a route, But since it was called, the formula kicks in. The Dolphins gained nine yards on 3rd & 10. They elected to wipe our their own nine-yard gain to get the downs. This is 100% the right call, but leads to the True Yards anomaly we saw above. For the formula that’s 5 yards assessed - 9 yards “negated” + 2 downs. Or 0.5 - 0.9 + 2.0 = 1.6 Harm.

Quarterback Josh Allen was apparently upset about some illegal touching and collected a helmet on his way out of the pile, earning a flag for unnecessary roughness. That was yardage only on the field, but I would expect a fine is coming as well.

Safety Jaquan Johnson was also called for unnecessary roughness on the play below. For now, the math shakes out to two assessed yards and one free down thanks to the location on the field. Not the worst roughness call from a harm perspective.

I’ll go into some more detail below, but the idea of a player being in a “defenseless” posture is critical to a LOOOOOOOOT of calls. I think this is a very easy case. Receivers in the process of trying to make a catch are considered defenseless. Note I use the word “trying” here. Success is not a factor. Here the poor guy hasn’t even landed from this overthrow by Tagovailoa and is clearly blasted in the head/neck area, which is prohibited. More on that below. This is absolutely the right call.

The Bills wound up with 7.3 Harm for the day, which is a pretty darn good result for the flags. Just less so on the scoreboard.

Miami Dolphins

Most of these are pretty lame. False starts pretty much always are, though this one was called live on “everyone but the center,” which is pretty funny. Linebacker Melvin Ingram’s offsides was a preposterous old-school unabated to the quarterback that found Josh Allen wanting a free play towards a blown whistle.

Offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg was called for offensive holding. An incomplete pass on third down led to the Bills declining the flag and taking the result of the play. Similarly, wide receiver Tyreek Hill was flagged for an illegal shift and another incomplete pass on third down was the better result.

Offensive tackle Greg Little got a bit ahead of himself and ended up with an ineligible downfield pass penalty. The five-yard flag also wiped out an eight-yard play to earn 1.3 Harm.

Not quite last, cornerback Xavien Howard was called for unnecessary roughness early in the game. Buffalo lost a yard on the play, which was negated by the penalty. It was assessed as five yards or half the distance to the goal and gave the Bills one free down. That’s 0.1 + 0.5 + 1.0 for 1.6 Harm. This was pretty straightforward as well. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs had nothing remotely like forward progress going on and Howard attempted a belly-to-back suplex for whatever reason.

Miami had an even better day with only 3.9 Harm total.

Dawson Knox No-Call Rant

Let’s return to the idea of a defenseless player, but first I need to air a grievance. If I hear someone say “helmet-to-helmet” with nothing else attached I’m cringing and assuming they don’t know the rule they’re trying to discuss. Say it with me...


Not in and of itself at least. Flags for contact to the head usually contain the following elements:

  • Contact occurs to the head or neck area (emphasis mine, you don’t need to hit the head directly).
  • The contact has to be forcible.
  • The contact has to be with one of the following: Helmet, forearm, elbow, shoulder.
  • The contact has to occur under certain conditions. For instance, when the player is unable to defend themselves from contact (QB during throwing motion, receiver trying to make a catch, etc.). Blindside blocks have stringent criteria similar to a defenseless player. The gist here, is that A LOT of the time, helmet-to-helmet contact is perfectly legal.

Let’s take a look at a controversial no-call during the game. A lot of fans thought this was going to be a flag, and practically exploded later in the game when a “similar” play was called that benefited the Dolphins. Specifically, the Jaquan Johnson flag above. Here’s the no-call when tight end Dawson Knox was hit in the head or neck area.

Runners are by default not “defenseless” as they’re able to ward off tacklers, etc. We’ve seen a running Dawson Knox stiff-arm opponents into oblivion, for example. Knox clearly is a runner and is no longer covered under the same rule we saw Jaquan Johnson flagged for.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think this play was A-OK, mind you. But if you’re going to get upset at the refs, it’s like I always say: Get upset at them for the right reason.

This is NOT a flag for the same reason Jaquan Johnson was called. However, unnecessary roughness has a lot of discretion involved, and this type of tackle with Knox about to be engaged with another defender is definitely unnecessary. In other words, they can ignore the “defenseless” concept if a play is egregious, and this one to me is egregious.

Further, you might remember a few years back the league created a rule that was informally called “lowering the head to initiate contact.” That rule actually says it’s illegal to lower the head to make a hit no matter where you end up hitting the opponent. Oddly enough, that rule quickly evaporated with only a single call last season. A key test for this used to be to look for a flat back on the hit with no attempt to bring the chin up for the NFL’s “heads up” tackling technique, considered best practice. This has all the hallmarks of a lowering the head call.

I do want to share another angle as there was some discussion that I saw questioning if the defender hit Knox with his helmet.

Knox no call

I think there’s a little wiggle room for argument making the no-call slightly less troublesome. The damning piece for me is the rotation of Knox’s helmet. No one turns their head as quickly as he does without some help, and Wilkins’ shoulder isn’t in the right place to make that twist likely. Being fair, I don’t believe Wilkins is deliberately trying to make contact with his helmet, but for NFL rules intention rarely matters.

So yes, it was a bulls*** no-call, but lets’ make sure we blame the refs the right way.