Despite playing almost every defensive snap the better part of the last two seasons, Rob Ninkovich has only been called for two penalties in that span. (AP)
FOXBORO — Don’t expect a lot of stoppages in play Sunday.
This weekend’s game between the Patriots and Dolphins in South Florida will feature two of the least-penalized teams in the league. Not including penalties that were declined or offset, New England comes into the contest with 57 penalties — second fewest in the NFL — while the Dolphins are the least-penalized team in the league with 55. In addition, the 534 penalty yards against the Patriots is 30th in the league. Only Miami (502) and Indy (499) have been hit with fewer penalty yards.
Both the Dolphins and Patriots have played two games this season where they didn’t get hit with a single penalty. New England wasn’t flagged once in an October loss to the Bengals, as well as a win over the Texans earlier this month. Meanwhile, Miami wasn’t hit with a single penalty in a September win over Indy, as well as last week against the Steelers.
To put that sort of smart, disciplined play into proper perspective, there are teams like the Buccaneers (106), Seahawks (104) and Rams (100) that already are into triple digits when it comes to total penalties. Tampa Bay leads the league with 1,000 penalty yards, while Seattle is close behind at 966.
In truth, through the first 13 games, it’s been a good season for New England when it comes to penalties. Through 13 games last season, the Patriots had been hit with 79 penalties for a total of 680 yards. In the same span in 2011 (the first 13 games of the year), the Patriots had 74 penalties and 658 yards. While they won’t set the regular-season mark under Bill Belichick for fewest penalties and least penalty yardage — that came in 2008 with 57 penalties and 501 yards — this year’s total represents nearly a 20 percent reduction in penalties and penalty yardage.
“It’s just about playing smart football,” said defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich, who has been flagged for just one penalty this year and two dating back to the start of the 2012 season. “You can’t win football games and expect to win games by having a lot of penalties. It just comes down to basic fundamentals. If you’re a defense, you’re trying to do your best to stay onsides and not jump off — that’s huge for the D-line. Giving up free five-yard plays every time, that hurts eventually.”
The only positional grouping for the Patriots that hasn’t been flagged over the course of the first 13 games of the season is the running backs. In fact, the last two seasons, the running backs consistently have been one of the lowest-penalized positional groupings on the team. In 2012, they were the least-penalized group with two penalties and five yards, and in 2011 they had one penalty for five yards.
At the other end of the spectrum, the cornerbacks have been hit with 128 yards worth of penalties, including a team-high six for Aqib Talib. That high yardage total is no surprise — with pass interference and defensive holding calls coming into play, cornerbacks are the most likely position to rack up higher penalty yardage. (To that point, this year the Patriots have been hit with six defensive holding penalties — four of them against Talib — and four pass interference calls.)
One area it appears where the defensive backs have improved over the course of the year is defensive pass interference. The last two seasons it was one of the most common calls against New England — the Patriots were flagged for defensive pass interference 11 times in 2012 and eight times in 2011. This year, they’ve been hit with four DPI calls.
The most common calls against the Patriots this year have been for offensive holding (11) and false starts (10). That’s been a fairly consistent trend over the last two years — in 2012, false starts (15) and offensive holding (15) were the most common calls against the Patriots, with defensive pass interference (11) close behind. And in 2011, the Patriots were whistled for 20 offensive holding calls and 17 false starts, while they also picked up eight defensive pass interference calls.
This season, in terms of fewest penalties per snap on offense, center Ryan Wendell and quarterback Tom Brady have the best ratio. Wendell has been flagged just twice this season (both offensive holding) despite tying for the team lead with 994 offensive snaps played. He’s tied with Brady, who has been hit with two penalties (intentional grounding, delay of game) over his 994 snaps.
On the other side of the ball, safety Devin McCourty is the team leader. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s tops on the defense in terms of total snaps with 947, but he’s only been hit with one penalty this season, a defensive holding call. Ninkovich is a close second with 907 snaps played and just one penalty, a defensive pass interference. Ninkovich’s fellow defensive end Chandler Jones has two penalties on the season (roughing the passer, neutral zone infraction) on 940 snaps.
For Ninkovich, it’s a simple formula.
“In my case, if you’re a defensive lineman who’s jumping offsides, you’re not playing,” Ninkovich said. “You just have to watch the ball and just be a smart football player.
“A lot of people say the game is fast, and it’s easy to make mistakes. I just think that if you know the basics of what you’re doing, you’re not going to make penalties in the first place.”