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 Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Cleveland Browns performed from a penalty perspective in 2022 and where they can improve in 2023.
Penalty Analysis for All 32 NFL Teams:
How Did Penalties Impact the Cincinnati Bengals?
- The Bengals were in the lower half of the NFL in penalties per game. This has been a positive trend for Cincinnati in the Joe Burrow- Zac Taylor era. Taylor is a coach from the Sean McVay tree where penalties are kept to a minimum.
- The Bengals were a top-three offense at drawing defensive pass interference penalties, benefitting at an average of 12.3 yards per infraction. Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase were one of the best duos at creating advantageous penalties in this category.
- The Bengals ranked second overall in net pre-snap penalty yards gained per game at 12.53 yards.
- The Bengals had no weakness of any significance in any penalty category. They had some false start issues early in the season, but their overall season average was mid-level compared to the other 31 teams. The majority of teams have at least one area of concern. That’s not the case with this group.
- Special teams penalties were the one weak spot for this Bengals squad. They ranked sixth overall in special teams net penalty yards per game. In the grander scheme of things, it is not a major issue. If anything, it’s a testament to the coaching staff and team that to find a negative we had to dig deep and use this statistic as an example.
This is a really impressive team and penalty profile. The Bengals’ season ended in the AFC Championship with some questionable calls against them in the fourth quarter at Kansas City. That’s football, though.
Overall, Cincinnati has been consistently good with penalty advantages since Burrow arrived on the scene. This team has the ideal combination of elite talent and discipline.
It is a great advantage to have, and they will be a contender while Burrow is at quarterback and Lou Anarumo is in charge of the defense. With this core group of players and coaching staff, there is every reason to believe this efficiency continues for many seasons to come in Cincinnati.
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 Baltimore Ravens?
- The Ravens were one of the least penalized teams in the NFL, averaging just 4.78 penalties per game and ranking 29th overall in 2022.
- Offensive holding was a major issue for the Ravens in 2021 when they averaged 1.71 penalties per game. That average dropped by more than half to just 0.83 per game in 2022.
- The Ravens ranked 28th overall in pre-snap penalties. With the Ravens’ offensive style, pre-snap penalties are to be avoided at all costs. Baltimore does a great job at avoiding the long yardage downs that pre-snap infractions can create.
- The Ravens ranked second overall in defensive pass interference penalties. The positive here is the Ravens were penalized at an average of 11.7 yards per infraction. That’s below average. Baltimore will commit a pass interference penalty in short-yardage situations when the final result adds up to what is essentially a defensive holding call.
- The defense ranked seventh overall in the key passing play penalties category. That is in large part due to the defensive pass interference penalties that push their per-game average higher.
- The Ravens were an offense that didn’t benefit from passing play penalties in a significant way. That is not a surprise given their offensive style. Since Lamar Jackson’s arrival in 2018, the Ravens have consistently ranked on the lower end of the spectrum in benefiting from pass interference or defensive holding penalties.
Overall, this is a solid profile. The Ravens commit more pass-interference penalties than most, but it might be by design. The avoidance of pre-snap penalties is a huge benefit to a less-than-explosive offense. The defense commits some penalties, but it doesn’t hurt them too much in the bigger picture.
The missing element is Jackson consistently connecting with receivers downfield. The threat of the offense being more efficient in those 20-plus yard passing plays creates stress on opposing defenses and creates additional penalties via defensive holding and pass interference. Additionally, it would create bigger running lanes for an already solid run game if defenses are legitimately concerned about that deep threat.
Baltimore is one of the most disciplined teams. They kept Jackson and have added receiver talent to stretch the field. The ingredients are there but the missing piece is the ability to draw those big passing penalties downfield on a consistent basis. If it all comes together in 2023, the Ravens will be one of the best teams in the NFL.
How Did Penalties Impact the Pittsburgh Steelers?
- The Steelers averaged 6.3 penalties per game over the first eight games of the 2022 season. They lowered this to just 4.7 per game over the final nine games and went 7-2 down the stretch in those contests.
- The offense was a top-five per-game beneficiary of passing play penalties. The two areas that put them in the upper tier were defensive pass interference and roughing the passer. Rookie Kenny Pickett was the beneficiary of four roughing the passer penalties in just 13 starts.
- The Steelers had the number one receiver duo at drawing defensive pass interference penalties in 2022. Dionte Johnson and rookie George Pickens led the NFL in this category. This is particularly impressive considering Pittsburgh rarely threw the ball in the first five weeks of the season with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback.
- The defense was one of the least penalized in the key passing play penalties category. They ranked 26th in penalty yards per game against in the four categories. Perhaps even more impressive is on average they allowed just 8.1 yards per infraction. If you are going to commit a penalty on a passing play, better to not give up a lot of yards. The Steelers did this exceptionally well in 2022. On a side note, Pittsburgh was one of only four teams to not have an illegal contact penalty assessed against them the entire season.
- The offense was the second-highest penalized for ineligible downfield pass penalties in 2022. They should improve in this department next season as Pickett gains experience and has his first offseason as the unquestioned starter.
- The Steelers were co-leaders with the Raiders for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
- Pittsburgh was penalized at approximately a 25% higher rate on the road than at home. The positive is next season the Steelers have nine games at Heinz Field in 2023 compared to eight on the road.
The Steelers’ profile highlights just how good a job Mike Tomlin did with this squad last season. There was a direct correlation between the decline in penalties and a winning record in the second half of 2022.
For a team whose identity is physical defense, to be one of the least penalized defenses is an impressive feat. The offense was effective at drawing penalties despite having a rookie quarterback and wide receiver.
Pittsburgh finished the season very strongly last season. If some of these stats carry over to 2023, this is a team that can make some noise in a stacked AFC field.
How Did Penalties Impact the Cleveland Browns?
- Outside of two key categories, the Browns were solid across the board.
- The Browns were one of the least penalized teams in pre-snap penalties, ranking 24th in per-game average in 2022.
- The offense was solid in drawing hard count penalties. Having a running back like Nick Chubb provides Cleveland with a weapon that opposing defenses look to get a jump on in short-yardage situations. Often it backfires, and the Browns are a recipient of an automatic first down as a result.
- Offensive holding was without a doubt the primary penalty issue for Cleveland last season. The Browns were the number one penalized team in this category. There was an uptick in offensive holds over the final six games with Deshaun Watson at quarterback. This may be random or a case of the offensive line getting accustomed to Watson’s playing style.
- The Browns as a team had a minus twenty-one penalty discrepancy in the offensive holding category, by far the worst performance of any team last season. They handed opponents an average of 11.3 penalty yards per game in this one category.
- The defense ranked sixth in defensive pass interference penalties average per game. These penalties averaged 13.3 yards per infraction. Rookie cornerback Martin Emerson was the weak link in the secondary last season.
The avoidance of negative categories outside the two we highlighted kept the Browns from a lower grade. However, those two issues need to be addressed, particularly the offensive holding. The Browns have offensive talent, but it’s not good enough to consistently overcome 10-yard penalties.
The primary offseason focus needs to be the offensive line working in unison with Watson. The reality is the AFC North division has really well-coached teams. In close games, a penalty may be the difference, and right now the Browns do not fare as well in that department compared to their division rivals.