The cost of penalties

While working on a post on our pass-defense, something interesting caught my eye. We give up low  yards per rush but end up giving a lot of rushing yards. We shut down opposing QBs but end up giving a lot of passing yards. It's an unsettling pattern. How can we explain this?

It's obvious, you say, if they're putting up very low yards per attempt that must mean they have a lot of attempts. Even 1 yard per rush would lead to a 100 yards if they try a 100 times. And I would say that you're right. We're giving up league worst 24.3 first downs per game and #30 (3rd worst) 69.1 plays per game. Our opponents have a 73.3% chance of getting another 1st down or a touchdown on each drive (#30).

Boy, those are some disheartening stats. You already know where this post is headed because of the title. But is there anything else besides penalties that can explain this? Let's see. We pretty much split the possession time with our opponents, allow low completion percentages, our yards per pass and per rush aren't impressive but not too bad either. Our turnover total is -2 after the last game so that's not too bad. Nothing stands out that could make us the league worst in 1st downs given. Nothing except penalties that is. Reason being that we keep extending our opponents' drives with penalties.

It's not just that we've given up league high 69 penalties and 600 yards, but that we have given up so much more than the average team. It's not even close. We've given up hundreds of yards more than other teams; even the second worst penalized team is at 100 less yards than us. And we're not even half way through the season! But do penalties make that big of a difference?

The answer is a resounding yes! Just by cutting 3 penalties a game, we'd give up ~25 less yards. This alone would make our defense #16 ranked instead of #25. Let that sink in for a minute.

But penalties have a much greater impact than pure yardage. By not giving up the league worst penalty first downs per game you would prevent your opponents from turning their drives into more first downs and field goals and touchdowns. You won't hurt our own drives, letting them turn into points. You'd be in possession of the ball longer. Your opponents' defenses would be on the field longer. It would mean more pressure on their offense. This combination of things leads to a snowball effect. It's hard to say how it all would manifest in numbers or how high our defense would be ranked. But even if it only gets us to #16, that's a change we'd be silly not to make.

There is not a coach, a player, or a scheme change that can have that big of an impact on our defense that fast. Heck if 21 teams in this league can give up fewer than 7 penalties a game, why can't we? I'm not proud of wanting our team to be mediocre at anything. But in the case of penalties, a small change can mean a world of difference. If we want to go to the playoffs, want to compete with the best of them, and want to bring home some trophies we need to reduce our penalties.