It’s been raining yellow during Buffalo Bills’ games this preseason.
That’s because the team has been flagged for 36 penalties – 32 of which have been accepted – including a whopping 10 false starts. That number of called penalties against ranks eighth most in the preseason among teams that have played three games.
“It’s unacceptable,” coach Sean McDermott said. “The only word for it is unacceptable. You can’t do that and expect to stay on schedule and move the football, in particular, against good defenses. Cincinnati, (Sunday’s) example, was a good defense. We have to stop hurting ourselves. Before you win, you have to prevent yourself from losing. Pre-snap penalties or penalties overall don’t allow you to play on-schedule football offensively.”
Particularly troubling for any team are the penalties that come before the snap. The Bills’ 10 false starts are the most in the NFL this preseason.
“I think that's the majority of our talks, has been not beating ourselves,” safety Micah Hyde said. “That stuff just hurts you, man. You can't go out there and expect to play well when you're getting backed up to first and 15 or first and 20, or on the flip side, the defensive side, first and 5. It's hard to win ball games that way, so we talk about that a lot. We've got to continue to be disciplined and fundamentally sound.”
The Bills generally did a good job of avoiding flags last year. Their 103 penalties against tied with Tennessee for ninth fewest in the league. That came after two bad years under Rex Ryan. The Bills tied for the NFL lead with 143 penalties against in 2015, then had the 12th most in 2016, with 112.
Given McDermott’s emphasis on technique and discipline, it’s not a surprise the penalty situation improved. It’s a bit of a mystery, though, why it’s popped up as a problem this preseason.
“Coach has said it multiple times, obviously any penalty hurts the football team, but the aggressive ones, in between the whistle, if you happen to clip a face mask ... those are going to happen,” Hyde said. “But as long as you try to limit those, you'll be fine. The pre-snap stuff is what kills you. Offensively, starting first and 15, it’s just so hard. When it happens to us on defense, and they do that, everything is in our hands. We love it.”
If there is a silver lining to the penalties, it’s that they are happening in the preseason and are self-inflicted.
“It's one of those things you always say, 'We beat ourselves.' It stinks, but at the same time, it's easier to correct,” Hyde said. “Us beating ourselves with pre-snap penalties or minor details on techniques that we do every day in practice but we mess up in the game, that's the stuff you can fix quickly. ... Going out there today and watching film, it's all on us. It can easily be corrected.”
The biggest offenders this preseason for the Bills have been offensive linemen John Miller and Marshall Newhouse, each of whom have been flagged three times. All three of Miller’s penalties came Sunday against Cincinnati, two for false starts and one for unnecessary roughness.
“I don’t think there’s a common thread that you can pinpoint,” Miller said. “You can really blame it on anything, really. You can blame it on discipline. You can blame it on lack of focus, or whatever you want to blame it on. But the thing about it is it’s unacceptable. We can’t have it. It put us behind the sticks as an offense and it just really kills drives, so we want to clean that up and focus on that and not have that happen at all.”
All three of Miller’s penalties stalled drives for the Bills. That’s been true on 13 of the penalties called so far this preseason. That’s a recipe for disaster if it bleeds into the regular season, particularly with the team still undecided on a starting quarterback and having major problems with pass protection at the moment.
So how do they prevent that from happening?
“Continue to work on it,” McDermott said. “Continue to work on our discipline, focus, our concentration, our techniques in practice. You play the way you practice, and we’ve got to practice the right way if we expect to play the right way.”
After false starts, there have been six offensive holding calls, four instances of unnecessary roughness and three blocks above the waist. Interestingly enough, there has been only one flag thrown for lowering the head to initiate contact (against linebacker Julian Stanford), the controversial new rule that many fear could produce a drastic increase in the number of penalties called.
“With the new rule, things are being emphasized even more,” safety Dean Marlowe said. “It (stinks) for defensive players, because we have to think a lot while we're playing. The meaning of the game is to play fast and have fun."