This is our regular analysis of strategy, decisions and calls that affected the week of NFL play -- with help from ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke among other resources.
Week 3 brought us an exaggerated reminder that defensive pass interference is the most lopsided penalty in football. Despite the presence of sensible remedies, no call is more destructive and outsized relative to the typical offense.
On Sunday, the Detroit Lions lost 66 yards -- two-thirds of the field! -- when Green Bay Packers receiver Trevor Davis fell as he tried to catch a deep pass. Referee Carl Cheffers' crew determined that Lions defensive back Nevin Lawson had interfered, and the resulting penalty moved the ball from the Packers' 32-yard line to the Lions' 2. It was the longest penalty for defensive pass interference in at least 15 NFL seasons, and because few plays will feature a ball thrown farther than 66 yards past the line of scrimmage, it's reasonable to view it as one of the longest penalties in league history.
Pass interference is a subjective call, so we can debate for eternity whether Lawson "significantly" hindered Davis' ability to make the catch, as is stipulated in the NFL rulebook. A strong argument could be made that their legs got tangled as Lawson turned to look for the ball, a seemingly incidental and legal event that often goes unpenalized.
What is indisputable, however, is how the penalty affected the game significantly. The Packers scored a touchdown on their next snap, increasing their lead to 21-3 in an eventual 34-27 victory. That increased their chances of winning by nearly 5 percentage points, according to ESPN's win probability model -- a sizable jump for one play.
The average yards lost this season on defensive pass interference is 15.75 yards per penalty, according to NFLPenalties.com. That number was 17.87 yards in 2015 and 18.09 in 2014. In other words, standard contact between receiver and defender while the ball is in the air is punished more harshly than hitting a quarterback in the head.
The NFL long ago committed to a set of rules that provides inherent advantages to the offense, and nothing is going to change that. But it seems increasingly reasonable to consider a safety net that caps the potential damage inflicted to the defense.
A popular suggestion has been to limit the penalty to 15 yards, as the NCAA does. The NFL has made offensive pass interference a 10-yard penalty, but it has resisted adjustments to defensive pass interference. NFL senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has argued that defenders would be incentivized to interfere on deep throws of longer than 15 yards.
As it is now, of course, receivers are incentivized to fall down or flop to embellish minor contact.
Regardless, if the 15-yard maximum had been in place Sunday, Lawson would have been smart to tackle Davis, who had a step on him, before the ball arrived. The resulting penalty would have moved the ball to the Packers' 47-yard line rather than the Lions' 2.
Because of those factors, adding pass interference to replay review seems an increasingly viable option -- even though it might be viewed negatively throughout the game. This summer, when I asked veteran Washington Redskins safety DeAngelo Hall about it, he shook his head and said "no" four times before suggesting that, if anything, the NFL should make offensive pass interference a spot foul as well. "That's what would make sense to me," Hall said.
It doesn't need to be this hard, and we've seen a viable approach emerge in the Canadian Football League. Defensive pass interference has been subject to review in the CFL for three seasons, and despite uneven reaction, its adjudication appears to have stabilized. Changes are limited to obvious mistakes, and in the most notable such review, the replay official corrected a critical pass interference call in the fourth quarter of the 2015 Grey Cup. Through the first 66 games of the 2016 season, the CFL has reversed a modest 15 defensive pass interference calls.
Sunday, Lawson protested the call while speaking afterward to reporters. It's quite possible he would have been validated under review. A key part of the pass interference is whether the defender is playing the ball when contact occurs, and replay showed Lawson was looking over his shoulder toward the line of scrimmage when Davis fell.
Without the safety net of replay review or a cap on the penalty, defensive pass interference too often remains an outsized penalty relative to the violation. There are ways to address that inequity, should the NFL desire, but I wouldn't count on it any time soon.
Rule you never knew existed, Part I
Smart teams don't simply know NFL rules. They figure out ways to manipulate them to their advantage, something the Packers have pulled off multiple times in recent years.
Sunday, Packers kick returner Ty Montgomery intentionally situated himself so that he could fall on the ball with his feet touching the white sideline marker at the 3-yard line. That triggered a rule that states, in part: "A ball that is in player possession is out of bounds when the runner is out of bounds."
When a kickoff goes out of bounds, of course, the ball is marked at the 40-yard line. Because Montgomery had possession of the ball and because he himself was out of bounds, that meant the kickoff had gone out of bounds. The strategy yielded the Packers a "free" 37 yards with no attempt to return the ball. The kick almost certainly wasn't going out of bounds on its own.
Randall Cobb performed a similar maneuver in a 2012 game, and you see other teams employ the strategy from time to time.
The rule itself exists simply to tell officials when to rule a player out of bounds. But it spawned an idea that is perfectly legal and rewarding when executed properly.
Rule you never knew existed, Part II
Holding a 26-22 lead with seven seconds remaining, the Colts decided to run out the clock by punting on fourth down. The Chargers put all 11 players on the line of scrimmage in a block attempt, so when punter Pat McAfee got the ball off, there was no returner to pick up the ball.
The Colts' Jack Doyle downed the kick, violating a rule that prohibits a player from the kicking team from touching a kick beyond the line of scrimmage before someone from the receiving team does, with no time remaining on the clock. You rarely see it mentioned, even though it happens often, because the receiving team has the choice of taking the ball at the spot of the touch or where the ball is dead. Usually that is the same spot or very close to it.
In cases of clock expiration, however, the rulebook requires officials to extend the period for one play to compensate for the violation. The Chargers got the ball at their 18-yard line, but their attempt to score through a series of laterals failed.
The Colts could have avoided the untimed play by simply waiting until the ball stopped moving, probably with a circle of cover men surrounding it to prevent a Chargers player from grabbing it, until officials whistled the play dead.
It was one of two opportunities the Colts missed to minimize the Chargers' chances at a meaningful final possession. The other, as Brian Burke noted, was for receiver T.Y. Hilton to take a knee at the 1-yard line rather than scoring the game-winning touchdown with one minute, 17 seconds remaining. Although it is understandable that Hilton followed his instincts, taking a knee -- as former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew did in a 2009 game -- would have allowed the Colts to drain the clock to about the 12-second mark before bringing in place-kicker Adam Vinatieri for a near-automatic game-winning field goal attempt.
Taking a knee and draining the clock would have given the Colts a win probability of about 99 percent via a field goal. Scoring at the 1:17 mark and returning the ball to the Chargers with two timeouts remaining limited the Colts' win probability to about 91.3 percent. It worked out but not without a few tense moments that ostensibly could have been alleviated.
Woe is Koetter
Of course, if you were watching the Buccaneers' 37-32 loss, "inefficient" is putting it kindly. They advanced the ball to the Rams' 27-yard line with 1:11 remaining and two timeouts left. Conservatively, they cost themselves two additional plays to score a game-winning touchdown.
Coach Dirk Koetter, in his first season at the helm of an NFL team, let the clock run after running back Charles Sims was tackled in the middle of the field at the 1:11 mark. That cost the Buccaneers 16 seconds before the next snap.
Then, with 49 seconds remaining, Sims made a defensible choice to turn upfield rather than run out of bounds after catching a swing pass. He gained a total of 12 yards to the Rams' 15-yard line, at which point Koetter should have called a timeout.
He did not.
"I probably should've," he told reporters afterward.
As a result, the Buccaneers didn't get the next play off until 26 seconds remained. That's 42 seconds lost in that sequence, a big deal considering the game ended on a second-down play. Quarterback Jameis Winston was tackled after a 10-yard run and time expired before the Buccaneers could use a timeout.
Mistakes happen in every game, but Koetter's lapses were less excusable given he had a rare 75-minute weather delay to plan and think clearly for that final possession. Had he used his timeouts effectively, the Buccaneers would have had a third and possibly fourth down to score after the Winston run. Instead they walked off the field without getting the opportunity. When you think about all the measures that NFL teams take year-round to maximize their chances of winning games, it's amazing how often they lose them by preventable mental lapses.