Dirty Play in the AFC North?

Yesterday’s episode of Monday Night Football had more than its share of unpleasant moments. Starting with an accidental, but particularly scary back injury to Ryan Shazier. That transcends the game and I’m sure every player in the NFL, even those who really don’t like the Steelers, shares genuine concern here and hopes for a full recovery.

Unfortunately, the game quickly devolved, mostly between Pittsburgh’s offense and Cincinnati’s defense. The Bengals’ George Iloka looked like he was going after Antonio Brown whenever possible, and finally was flagged after a touchdown. He was suspended for a game (strangely, his suspension was the only one retracted this week, since his behavior seemed the most calculated). The Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster head-hunted Vontaze Burfict during a play, then stood over him and received a taunting penalty. He was also suspended for a game.

These incidents, combined with the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski’s disturbing behavior on Sunday, have the NFL once again at the top of the sports news cycle for all the wrong reasons.

Ben Roethlisberger, the Steeler quarterback with two Super Bowl rings to his name and a Hall of Fame resume, was asked about the dirty play after the game. His response? “AFC North.”

That got me thinking… are some teams more prone to dirty play or is it just perception? Is the AFC North some sort of special haven for teams that can’t help but goon it up against each other? How would you study this?

Given that dirty play stemming from high emotion is fairly easy to spot, my assumption is that penalty yardage would correlate to these games. So I constructed a spreadsheet with some penalty numbers from 2013-2017. This covers 1,260 games, including playoffs. I also separated out all the games involving two AFC North teams – a sample of 58 games.

Among these AFC North games, the 239 penalty yards yesterday was the most in a single game. The 173 from Cincinnati was second only to Cleveland’s 188 against Pittsburgh in their first matchup of 2015. Third place – and the only other +200-yard combined penalty performance was the infamous 2015 playoff game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

I think NFL fans remember that game. Cincinnati looked like it had completed a fantastic fourth-quarter comeback. With Pittsburgh ahead, 15-0, Roethlisberger was sacked and injured on the last play of the third quarter. The Bengals scored two touchdowns and a field goal to take the lead with 1:50 remaining. Landry Jones promptly threw an interception and it looked like two decades of playoff futility had finally ended for Cincinnati. To that point, Pittsburgh had been penalized 142 yards to Cincinnati’s 49.

But the Steelers still had time outs, so the Bengals needed one more first down to secure the victory. Jeremy Hill fumbled on the next play. Still, Pittsburgh was back at its own 9. Roethlisberger returned. He moved the ball downfield quickly, but time was running out. He threw a long pass for Brown, maybe their last chance, and it fell incomplete. But Burfict was penalized for a nasty hit on Brown and Adam Jones drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and all of a sudden Pittsburgh was in position for the winning field goal in the closing seconds.

The way that game ended – with Cincinnati losing simply because their defensive players couldn’t control their emotions – cemented the Bengals’ reputation as an undisciplined team and lends a lot of credence to the claims Roethlisberger made yesterday.

Is all of this true? Here are some numbers:

Over the last five years, NFL teams average 56.2 penalty yards per team per game. Cincinnati has averaged 56.0 penalty yards per game. So, no, the Bengals are not a particularly high-penalty team. Teams range from Carolina (49.0 yards) to Seattle (66.3 yards). Baltimore, at 60.8 yards, is the only AFC North team in the top quartile.

Are AFC North games particularly penalty-prone? AFC North teams, overall, average 57.4 yards in penalties per game. However, divisional games average 58.3 yards in penalties. That’s not a huge difference, but Cincinnati’s 70.6-yard average against Pittsburgh (not including yesterday, it’s 57.0 yards) is the highest team versus team average.

The numbers really aren’t all that notable except for one total: in the 30 games against Pittsburgh, opponents are averaging 66.4 yards of penalties while in the 52 games against Pittsburgh played by the rest of the league, they’ve averaged 55.4 yards.

Now, one thing I haven’t done is split all divisions in this manner (I don’t want to turn this into a major project), but Roethlisberger’s perceptions seem valid (53.7 out-of-division committed by Pittsburgh, 58.2 in-division), though that experience does not hold true for the rest of the division. So, over the course of the last five years, Pittsburgh’s AFC North games have averaged about one major penalty per game more than you’d expect based on team averages. That seems significant and worth some extra attention from the NFL.