2022 Penalty Analysis: 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Cardinals

Penalties are an under-discussed aspect of NFL success and failure. Average teams can become playoff contenders with good discipline, and good teams can become great simply by winning the penalty battle.

Let’s look at how the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, and Arizona Cardinals performed from a penalty perspective in 2022 and where they can improve in 2023.

Penalty Analysis for All 32 NFL Teams:

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How Did Penalties Impact the San Francisco 49ers?

The Good

  • The 49ers were the least penalized home team in 2022, averaging just 4.09 penalties per game at Levis Stadium.
  • The offense drew the most hard count penalties in 2022.
  • The 49ers were adept at drawing defensive pass interference penalties, ranking eighth overall in per-game average.
  • The defense ranked 14th overall in per-game average for passing play penalties but 19th overall in yardage lost on those penalties. It is a solid performance from one of the most physical defenses in the NFL.

The Bad

  • The 49ers averaged 7.33 penalties per game on the road, tied with the Broncos as the third-most penalized road team in 2022.
  • The 49ers ranked sixth in offensive holding penalties per game. The positive though is their actual average did not vary significantly from any other season in the Kyle Shanahan era.
  • The offense drew only four defensive holding penalties in 2022, a surprisingly low number for an offense that creates so many problems for defenses.

GRADE: A-

The atrocious penalty average on the road is what kept the 49ers from an A+ grade. It goes without saying that is the primary penalty issue headed into 2023, especially due to the fact they have nine road games on their schedule.

The offense is always going to be sharp as that is Shanahan’s area of expertise. The play designs put stress on opposing defenses and inevitably create beneficial penalties along the way. With a full offseason to incorporate Christian McCaffery, the 49ers will be even more difficult to cover. This offense should be in the top 10 of drawing defensive holding penalties. That’s a potential area for improvement next season.

DeMeco Ryans has been replaced by Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but the Panthers with Wilks were slightly less penalized via passing penalties than the 49ers last season.

The 49ers are a veteran team with an excellent head coach. The foundation is there for this to continue for at least a few more seasons with Shanhan and the core group of players together.

These insights are an excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 500+ page book “2023 Football Preview” which is now available for download.

In the book, you can find comprehensive penalty analysis for all 32 NFL teams from Joe Gibbs.

How Did Penalties Impact the Seattle Seahawks?

The Good

  • The Seahawks averaged 4.67 penalties per game at home in 2022, ranking them ninth overall in this category.
  • The offense was a solid beneficiary of passing play penalties, ranking 12th overall in per-game average. They weren’t a standout in any particular area but average to slightly above average across the four categories in this group. DK Metcalf drew just two defensive pass interference penalties. This is well below what a receiver of his size and ability should be able to draw over the course of a season. That needs to be an area of improvement in his game.
  • The offensive line was excellent in the offensive holding category, ranking 28th in per-game average.
  • Defensively, Seattle improved in 2022 in the passing play penalty category, ranking 26th in per-game average. They committed just one roughing the passer penalty last season, their best result in this category since 2014.

                                            The Bad

  • The Seahawks ranked second overall in pre-snap penalties per game. Big contributors to this were false starts, offside, and neutral zone infraction penalties.
  • The Seahawks were awful on the road, averaging 7.67 penalties per game. Only their division-rival Cardinals were more penalized in road games last season. Conventional thinking would lead us to believe a high road penalty average is standard operating procedure for the Seahawks given how great they are at home. The reality is Seattle has had a road-home penalty discrepancy like the one from 2022 only three times in the Pete Carroll era.

GRADE: B+

The Seahawks in the Carroll era have never been your prototypical attention-to-detail team. They have more of a helter-skelter type approach where an extra penalty may occur due to the playing style of an energized team. The fact is that has worked. Seattle has won a lot of games since Carroll arrived.

Overall it was a solid performance by Seattle in 2022, but the pre-snap penalties need to be the point of emphasis heading into 2023. 

Aside from that, it was a good effort with penalties, and that was a factor in the Seahawks overachieving in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season last year. 

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How Did Penalties Impact the Los Angeles Rams?

The Good

  • The Rams ranked 31st in the NFL, averaging 4.47 penalties per game. They averaged just 1.35 pre-snap penalties per game, ranking them 30th in the category. This is particularly impressive given the offensive line issues and various players at the quarterback position throughout the season.
  • The defense was one of the least penalized on passing play penalties, ranking 29th overall on per-game average. A key factor behind the solid performance is the Rams were one of only three teams to not commit a roughing the passer penalty last season.

The Bad

  • The Rams led the NFL in unnecessary roughness penalties per game.
  • The offense ranked 30th per game as a passing penalty beneficiary. This isn’t surprising given the offensive line and protection issues that really limited their ability to stretch the field. In what may come as a surprise to some, the offense with Sean McVay has never been a prolific drawer of defensive holding or defensive pass interference penalties.

GRADE: A-

The 2022 season was a complete 180 from their Super Bowl winning season in 2021. Injuries and lack of depth decimated their team. Throughout it all, they still managed to be one of the least penalized teams in the NFL. 

McVay teams are very detail-oriented, and even with a constant rotation of new personnel on this Rams team in 2022, that didn’t change.

How this team looks in 2023 remains to be seen. While McVay is the head coach, the foundation of limiting penalties and overall smart football will be part of this team’s DNA. That at least gives them a chance. 

How Did Penalties Impact the Arizona Cardinals?

The Good

  • The defense averaged the second-fewest passing play penalties per game, ranking 31st in the NFL They were one of the least penalized for defensive holding and illegal contact penalties in 2022.
  • Marquise Brown was one of the best wide receivers at drawing defensive pass interference penalties at an impressive 24.8-yard average per penalty.

The Bad

  • The Cardinals led the NFL with 6.94 penalties per game. A large contributor to that number was pre-snap penalties. They averaged a league-leading 3.06 per game.
  • The Cardinals were the most penalized road team, averaging 8.38 penalties per game.
  • The offensive line was a disaster for Arizona. They ranked third overall in per-game average for offensive holding and were co-leaders with the New Orleans Saints in false start penalties per game in 2022. The Cardinals selected Paris Johnson Jr. in the first round of the draft. If he lives up to the hype, it fills a void and likely reduces the excess holding penalties and false starts.
  • The Cardinals were similar to the Broncos in 2022 with so many penalties in each category that it made it difficult to win games. Arizona was at or near the most penalized in categories like illegal shift, intentional grounding, and encroachment. Those all come down to attention to detail. The Cardinals didn’t possess that last season.

GRADE D-

How does Arizona turn this around?

They brought in Jonathan Gannon from the Eagles as their new head coach. The Eagles defense was great in terms of penalties last season. The Cardinals do have that going for them based on their 2022 penalty stats, although it is a far less talented group than what Gannon worked with in Philadelphia.

Offensively, the Cardinals are a mess and the quarterback position is in limbo with Kyler Murray out for the first half of the season. Even when Murray was playing this was a sloppy outfit. He is as much to blame as anyone else. 

There were other teams who received low grades, but there were some positives to take into 2023 for every other squad. The Cardinals have a rookie head coach, personnel issues, and a questionable culture. 

The turnaround has to begin somewhere. Cleaning up the basic errors that we’ve highlighted here would be a start.

It feels like 2023 will be another losing season in the desert, but if Gannon can establish a culture of discipline on this team, it would be a successful campaign and something to build on for 2024 and beyond.

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