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 Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, and Chicago Bears 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 Minnesota Vikings?
- The Vikings went from the seventh-most penalized team per game in 2021 to the 26th in 2022. It was an impressive performance in Kevin O’Connell’s first season as a head coach. O’Connell is another coach from the Sean McVay tree.
- The Vikings led the NFL in positive net penalty yardage with an average of 15 yards per game. In 2021, they had the worst net yardage per game at negative-15.12 yards. That’s a swing in one year of three first downs per game via penalty yardage.
- The Vikings ranked second overall for offensive holding in 2021, averaging 1.82 per game. They were the least penalized team in 2022, dropping to just 0.67 per game.
- The Vikings offense was the number one beneficiary of passing play penalties last season, a massive jump from 2021 when they ranked 25th in per-game average. The Minnesota offense ranked highly at drawing defensive pass interference and defensive holding penalties. The Vikings gained 10.8 yards of field position via penalty yards on each infraction. That is not a high average, but the volume offsets that to some degree.
- The defense ranked 28th in passing play penalties against them. It was a big drop compared to 2021 where they ranked eighth in per-game average in this category.
- Pre-snap penalties were the big issue for the Vikings in 2022. They led the NFL in delay of game penalties, and 70% of those penalties were on the road. False starts were also an issue for Minnesota. They ranked 11th in per-game average in that category.
The year-over-year improvement for this team was astounding. There was plenty of commentary on the Vikings living a charmed life in 2022, overachieving and seemingly coming out on the right side of close games the majority of the time.
Winning the penalty advantage is often the difference between a win and a loss This penalty recap provides some insight as to how they won so many one-score games.
O’Connell did a great job with this team. As previously stated, McVay coaches tend to have lower penalties per game, so we have to assume this was not a fluke despite it being O’Connell’s first season as a head coach.
Minnesota needs to add talent, particularly on defense, but the foundation has been laid by O’Connell in his first season. This team should be one of the more disciplined in the NFL going forward.
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 Detroit Lions?
- The Lions averaged 6.3 penalties per game over the first eight games, resulting in a 2-6 start. In the second nine games, they improved dramatically to just 4.3 penalties per game. That contributed in part to a 7-2 finish to the season. The Lions and the Steelers shared very similar paths this past season in relation to penalty reduction coinciding with winning down the stretch.
- The Lions ranked third in per-game average as a passing penalties beneficiary. Part of the reason for the high ranking was the Lions tied with the Vikings in benefiting from the most roughing the passer penalties last season. The offense gained 10.9 yards via passing play infractions on opposing defenses.
- The offense ranked in the top half of the league as a defensive holding and defensive pass interference beneficiary also, although the average gained on these flags was only 9.9 yards per infraction. The Lions still have room to improve vertically in the passing game and increase this average.
- The Lions ranked 27th in per-game average for pre-snap penalties.
- The Lions ranked second in per-game average for offensive holding penalties. That was an increase of 45% compared to 2021 in this category.
- The defense ranked fifth for defensive pass interference penalties per game. The positive is 80% of those occurred in the first eight games of the season. As they improved down the stretch, Detroit was one the least penalized teams in this important category.
The Lions were the big improver down the stretch in the NFC. They cleaned up a lot of unnecessary penalties that were costing them games early in the season. Dan Campbell deserves credit, and changes by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn were pivotal to the turnaround.
This is a young and talented group that figured it out in 2022. The question now is can they repeat that second half of last season into the start of 2023? It comes down to attention to detail and maintaining momentum.
The players and coaches now know they can be one of the least penalized teams and win the close games where a penalty is often the difference in the outcome.
How Did Penalties Impact the Green Bay Packers?
- The Packers averaged 5.24 penalties per game, ranking them 22nd in the NFL. Matt LaFleur is another coach from the Sean McVay tree, and his Packers teams have always been one of the least penalized each season of his tenure.
- The Packers were one of the least penalized for pre-snap penalties, ranking 29th per game in this category.
- The offense didn’t rank highly as a defensive pass interference beneficiary, but when they did, they averaged 23.5 yards per penalty. Green Bay has the downfield threats to draw the penalties, but the volume needs to increase in 2023.
- The defense was one of the least penalized, ranking 27th per game in allowing passing play penalties. They excelled in avoiding roughing the passer, illegal contact, and defensive pass interference penalties. On the occasions they did commit a penalty, they conceded just 9.1 yards of field position to opposing offenses.
- The special teams unit was the third-most penalized in the league. This is worth noting as Green Bay brought in Rich Bisaccia from the Raiders to fix a key part of their 2021 problems. It didn’t go to plan in year one.
- The offensive line was the fifth-most penalized per game for offensive holding. This was their worst season since LaFleur arrived at Lambeau.
Overall, it was a solid performance. The defense was the bright spot. The offense was underwhelming in drawing passing play penalties. The negative impact of the offensive line penalties throughout the season and the departure of Davante Adams really hindered the Green Bay offense.
There is no reason to believe the Green Bay defense will regress in 2023. Offensively there needs to be a big improvement.
Cutting down on offensive holding penalties is an absolute must for any team. Nobody is really sure what Jordan Love will bring to the offense, and his style might help the team avoid holding calls.
There is work to do, but LaFleur’s teams have been some of the least penalized over the past four seasons. There is reason for optimism in Green Bay going forward without Aaron Rodgers.
How Did Penalties Impact the Chicago Bears?
- The Bears averaged just 4.71 penalties per game, ranking them 30th in the NFL.
- A key component of the low penalty count was the avoidance of pre-snap penalties. The Bears ranked 24th in the NFL in this category. A limited offense like the Bears cannot afford to create long-yardage situations via pre-snap penalties. They are drive-stalling infractions. Chicago did a great job of limiting them last season.
- The defense ranked tenth overall in per-game average for passing play penalties. Those penalties resulted in an average of 15.3 yards conceded to opponents.
- Defensively, the Bears were atrocious in yardage conceded on defensive pass interference calls. They allowed the highest yardage average in the NFL at 28.6 yards per infraction in 2022.
- The Bears ranked eighth in the per-game average of automatic first down penalties allowed.
- The Chicago offense was anemic in the passing play penalty category. Their volume of drawing penalties was limited, and on the occasions they did draw a flag, they averaged 9.8 yards of field position per infraction. This isn’t surprising as it was a run-first offense with limited outside weapons.
This was the first season as a head coach for Matt Eberflus. He clearly had his team focused on attention to details overall, despite certain areas of concern. That’s a positive thing going forward. The bottom line is Chicago didn’t have a lot of talent on either side of the ball.
The defensive penalty statistics were not good. There is reason for optimism, however, as the Bears acquire talent and Eberflus builds in his area of expertise.
The offense was similar to the Falcons at not putting themselves in long-yardage situations via pre-snap penalties. The common denominator is both were run-heavy offenses, which are simpler to execute.
It’s only a one-season sample size, but the good news is Eberflus seems to have created a culture of limiting penalties. Assuming the Bears can add talent throughout the roster and combine it with a coach that preaches discipline, the foundation has been laid for success in Chicago over the next few seasons.