Flags seem to fly exclusively in tough situations for Washington. During Thursday night’s victory at FedEx Field, penalties helped the New York Giants escape second and seven, second and 10, second and 12, third and seven and third and 13. Had New York not bailed out Washington with an offside penalty, allowing Dustin Hopkins to make his second attempt at a winning field goal on the final play of the game, the postgame conversation might have focused on Washington’s defensive miscues.
“We can’t jump our gaps, we can’t miscommunicate, and we can’t create penalties,” Rivera said Friday after reviewing the Giants game film. “So, again, it falls back on us. We’ve got to be better.”
Washington has hamstrung itself with penalties in all three phases — its total of 17 is tied for fifth most in the NFL through Sunday’s games — but the eight defensive flags have hurt in particular. The team’s margin for error could shrink in coming weeks, given Washington is set to face several top quarterbacks, starting Sunday with a road trip to meet Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills. Over Washington’s subsequent six games, it is set to take on Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.
The extent of damage done by defensive penalties can be quantified by expected points added, an advanced metric. EPA reflects the importance of each play better than yards because it accounts for factors such as down, distance, field position and time remaining. For example, a five-yard gain on first and 10 in the first quarter is less valuable than a five-yard gain on fourth and four in the fourth quarter.
In two games, Washington’s defensive penalty EPA is minus-10.7, according to sports analytics firm TruMedia — fifth worst in the NFL and already one-fifth of its total from last season (50.68). The uptick in penalties cannot be blamed on Washington’s quick turnaround in Week 2 because, as one recent study found, flags are no likelier to be thrown on Thursday than on any other day of the week.
It’s possible, if difficult, to be an elite and heavily penalized defense. Over the past decade, seven defenses have finished in the top five in EPA per play and penalty EPA per play. The 2015 Denver Broncos ranked first in both categories and still carried the franchise to the Super Bowl title over Rivera’s Carolina Panthers, but Washington’s defense has not proved dominant enough to overcome itself as often as Denver’s did.
The biggest penalty of the young season by EPA came late in the third quarter Thursday. Washington led 14-13 and had New York facing third and 13 from its own 32-yard line. Washington’s offense, which had just gone three and out, would have benefited from the chance to recapture its rhythm. But when Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard broke back toward the ball near the first-down line, cornerback Kendall Fuller grabbed his jersey for a defensive pass interference penalty.
On the broadcast, analyst Troy Aikman pointed out Washington doubled the middle with a safety over the top, apparently expecting New York to target Shepard. Aikman seemed nonplussed by Fuller’s flail, noting, “There’s a lot of penalties that have kept these drives alive.”
Washington couldn’t erase the error. Three plays later, New York converted a third and seven to Shepard — “Blown coverage on the back end,” Aikman said — and two plays after that, wide receiver Darius Slayton beat cornerback William Jackson III one-on-one down the sideline for a lead the Giants kept for most of the rest of the game.
“We just have to do better,” defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said. “It’s not like the issues are we’re just not good enough. We obviously have the talent. We just got to focus on the little things, and honestly, thank God our offense was there to save us time and time again.”
Statistically, there is hope Washington’s penalty rate will decline. One study of penalty data from 1999 to 2020, which included more than 64,000 infractions, found the rates at which a team is flagged for certain types of penalties can be somewhat consistent. But the magnitude of the moments in which Washington’s have occurred will not necessarily continue — meaning that even if Washington keeps getting penalized as much as it has been, it doesn’t mean it’ll keep happening on plays as important as Fuller’s pass interference against Shepard.
“[Washington’s penalties so far] are still not all that predictive of future performance,” the penalty study’s author, Jack Lichtenstein, said in an email. “I would not be all that concerned.”
But Washington, staring down a gantlet of talented quarterbacks, has not shown the improvement it wants to make. For now, all Rivera and his players can do is promise to be better.