One of the New England Patriots’ biggest issues against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday were negative plays. Not only did the team turn the football over and give up almost 7.0 yards per (non-kneel down) rushing attempt, but it also continuously set itself back via penalties. On the day, the Patriots were flagged 15 times — 14 of those penalties were accepted by the Steelers and resulted in a combined loss of 106 yards.
In a game as close as Sunday’s this is a problem. What also is a problem that nine of New England’s infractions were either of the procedural or pre-snap kind as a breakdown of the 15 flags thrown against the team shows:
False start: 5x (Marcus Cannon, Julian Edelman, Ryan Allen, Trent Brown, Joe Thuney)
Offensive holding: 3x (Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason)
Defensive holding: 2x (Stephon Gilmore: declined, Malcom Brown)
Defensive offside: 1x (Trey Flowers)
Defensive pass interference: 1x (Jonathan Jones)
Delay of game: 1x (extra point team)
Illegal formation: 1x (Julian Edelman)
Ineligible downfield kick: 1x (Kyle Van Noy)
While none of the penalties occurred on third down, two of them — offensive holding calls agains Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason — came in the red zone and cost the team valuable field position on drives ending in an interception and a turnover on downs, respectively. Safe to say that flags were an issue for the Patriots, especially when going against a team that lost just 40 yards on four infractions.
That is not to say that the referees are at fault for New England’s loss, despite some close calls being made to the Patriots’ disadvantage. However, John Parry and his crew are relatively flag-happy albeit inconsistent week in and week out: on average, Parry’s team calls 11.9 penalties per game. No team, however, heard its name called out as often this season by the veteran referee than the Patriots.
“Some of those were some close calls, some of those were penalties we can handle,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said immediately after the Patriots’ 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh. And that is probably the main thing New England has to take away from the game: as concerning as it was to see the team being unable to adjust to the game being called tightly, a lot of the penalties can be avoided.
And even though it stood out on Sunday, the Patriots have actually been one of the least-flagged teams over the course of the entire season: head coach Bill Belichick’s squad gets called “just” 7.4 times per game (up from 6.8 before the Steelers game) which is still the ninth best number in the NFL. When it comes to accepted penalties, New England is tied for sixth best with 6.0 per contest (up from 5.4 the week prior).
All in all, it looks as if the game in Pittsburgh was more of an outlier than a concerning development. Some of New England’s issues with penalties can easily be addressed and worked on, while the rest just ebbs and flows as is common in the NFL. Concern level: low.