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Seahawks penalty count: Seattle may draw a lot of flags, but is that always a bad thing?

And are the Seahawks a "dirty team" or is it just the narrative that the media wants you to believe?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

I was watching a game earlier this year and I distinctly remember seeing a veteran secondary player do something that made me go, "Oh, smart move." I was very impressed by the play and the player, though for the life of me I can't remember the player's name, the team name, who it was against, or the situation it happened.


All I know is that the player, and another secondary player, had gotten fooled badly by a receiver that was now about to be left wide-open for an easy touchdown. Except that the veteran player (I want to say Terrance Newman, which would make sense since the player had gotten beat) decided just to knock the receiver down. It was obvious pass interference, everybody knew it, but what else was he supposed to do? At that time, the damage was already done.

It was either going to go for 30 yards or it was going to be a touchdown. There was only one obvious answer, though I have rarely ever seen a player use Defensive Pass Interference as a weapon in his disposal. Except for Kelly Jennings I guess, but I'm talking about doing it intentionally.

It's the kind of savvy veteran move that can sometimes help you win games. I don't believe that the team in that game ended up scoring a touchdown on the drive, and it was a crucial move to use the penalty as something in your disposal, rather than thinking you must always avoid drawing a penalty.

There's been a lot of talk about the Seahawks penalties this season, so I figured it would be fair to lay out some facts for everyone.

First, the most obvious:

Seattle is second in the NFL in total penalties and penalty yards, behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Team Penalties Yards Against Yards Against Net difference Net yards
Tampa Bay 106 1000 81 771 -25 -229
Seattle 104 976 74 708 -30 -268
St. Louis 100 807 87 810 -13 3
Denver 97 834 87 705 -10 -129
Jets 93 746 78 712 -16 -34

The net difference of drawing 30 more flags than their opponents is the highest in the NFL, while the Patriots have drawn 34 fewer penalties than opponents. Still, seven teams have had their opponents draw fewer penalties than Seattle, with the Bengals being the beneficiary of only 54 flags thrown on opponents.

The Seahawks have been called for at least nine penalties in seven games this season and they are 6-1 in those games. The games where they had the fewest penalties (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Tampa Bay) were really against opponents that at the time you could say were "inferior" based on record and other obvious factors.

In their Week 2 game against the Niners, Seattle was called for 10 penalties but nine of those were on offense. It wasn't about Richard Sherman or an "illegal" hit, but included three dumb pre-snap penalties. Seattle has had 16 total offensive penalties called against them in two games against San Francisco this season, with both games against the Niners being the games they were called for the most offensive penalties in.

Against the Rams, when they had their worst offensive performance of recent memory, but drew a season-high seven defensive penalties.

Still, San Francisco has been called for 19 penalties against Seattle this year, meaning that they have been called for the same number of flags against each other, with the Seahawks actually benefiting from 22 extra yards.

The reason that Seattle has more penalties than most teams really boils down to play by the offensive line more than anything else. Penalties by Seahawks:

Type Total League Average
Off. Holding 19 14.66
False Start 17 13.53
DPI 11 6.41
Un. Rough 10 5.41
Def. Holding 7 4.31
Def. Offside 7 3.94

While Seattle is called for more defensive pass interference calls than average, what's the actual difference? They have 4.59 more DPIs than the average team, spread out over 13 games, for an average of +0.35 defensive pass interference penalties per game, or, one for every three games.

Teams have attempted 434 passes against Seattle, against a league average of 462.3, or just 2.15 less pass attempts per game than the average NFL team.

The average NFL team has drawn 80 flags this year total, meaning that the Seahawks have 24 more penalties than the average team or 1.84 more penalties per game.

With yardage, the Seahawks are giving up about 20 yards per game in penalties (net difference from 75 penalty yards against being the beneficiary of 54 penalty yards per game) so what is that worth to them? I think the obvious answer is that pre-snap penalties are absolutely unnecessary and stupid. Costing yourself five yards for a false start or 12 men on the field or delay of game or whatever, just isn't acceptable.

Every team knows this. And while many people want to drive the narrative that Seattle is the "cheating bad boys of the NFL," every team also knows that you have to break the rules sometimes to win.

For every "How could they let Sherman make contact like that?!" screamed by a 49ers fan, there is a hands-across-America play from Vernon Davis as Frank Gore breaks off a game-changing 51-yard run. That's just part of the game until it's not. Davis knew what he was doing when he pulled Sherman out of the play, he just had to hope that the ref either wouldn't see it/determine it wasn't egregious enough to throw a flag/had Frank Gore on his fantasy team.

If the Seahawks offensive line had been good enough all year to not be called for the sixth-most penalties in the NFL, then Seattle wouldn't be near the top like they are. On that same note, some of the least-penalized teams in the NFL, like Miami, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Atlanta... aren't very good. Some might say that a team like Indianapolis (only 57 penalties, second-fewest in the league) has overachieved in part because of playing by the book, while others would say that Seattle and Denver have the best records in the NFL because of their style of play.

A style of play that causes more penalties? Maybe. But every team has to weigh the benefits of a few yellow flags, because it's only costing you yards, not the game. Sometimes you have to give up a few yards in order to save yourself.

Addendum: Sherman has been called for three DPI penalties, which is fairly common. Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie of the Jets has six, two players have five, six players have four, and 16 players have three.