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Patriots try not to let penalties interfere

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - Not all penalties are created equal.

Sure, there are times when incidental contact is no big deal or an illegal substitution doesn’t hurt a drive.

But sometimes an offensive holding call can negate a big gain; sometimes a false start can push a team out of field goal range. Sometimes pass interference can all but hand an opponent the winning touchdown.

Nearly all of them can be eliminated.

Bill Belichick’s hallmark as a coach is his attention to detail, and not surprisingly, flying yellow flags do not escape his scrutiny. Traditionally, the Patriots are among the least-penalized teams in the NFL. In 2008, they set a league record for fewest penalties accepted in a 16-game season, with just 57, an average of 3.6 per game.

According to Vince Wilfork, Belichick has a simple rule when it comes to penalties: “Don’t kill ourselves.’’

“That’s the main thing,’’ said the defensive tackle. “But it’s hard in this league to walk away from a game without a penalty. It’s very, very tough.

“Some of them you can get away with, but the bonehead stuff, like the unsportsmanlike and jumping offsides and stuff like that, it’s just uncalled for.

“You’re going to get a pass interference here and there; you might get an intentional facemask if you’re trying to make a tackle. Stuff like that is understandable.

“But when you kill yourself with the bonehead ones, those are the ones he really harps on.’’

Wilfork said the Patriots have been “OK’’ in the penalty department this season, but as with so many areas, they’re looking to improve.

Teammate Kevin Faulk nodded and said, “Oh yes indeed,’’ when asked if Belichick has been emphasizing the need to eliminate avoidable mistakes.

“It’s an issue, and that’s why it keeps getting addressed,’’ Faulk said. “Because you don’t want to go into the playoffs, you don’t want that going into any game in the latter part of the year.’’

New England is squarely in the middle of the penalty pack this season, with 67 infractions for 591 yards through 11 games, which ranks 13th in the league in number of penalties and 17th in yardage. At that pace, which works out to 6.1 flags for 53.7 yards per game, the Patriots would have their highest totals since 2006 in both categories.

Last year, New England tied with Jacksonville for the seventh-fewest penalties in the league.

Some of the increase can be attributed to the NFL’s emphasis on player-safety fouls in recent years. The number of penalties per team has risen steadily since 2007, from an average of 91.6 to 96.9 last year to this season’s pace of 105.5 per club. The number of yards each team is docked has spiked correspondingly, from 720 in ’07 to a projected 885 this season.

In general, there is a correlation between a team’s success and the number of penalties it is called for, according to former NFL officiating czar Mike Pereira, who now works for Fox Sports.

“I would say the answer to that question is yes, because you look at the teams in the playoffs and normally those teams that have the least amount of penalties do figure in the playoff race,’’ said Pereira, who fields dozens of rules questions on his Twitter feed during NFL Sundays.

“Now, you do get exceptions - you do get some heavily penalized teams in the playoffs. But as a rule, you look at the more disciplined teams - and I think that’s what penalties are, they’re a lack of discipline, some more than others.

“You look at the teams that are more disciplined and they do have a tendency to rise to the top. But like I said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule.’’

Pereira counts false start, delay of game, and defensive offsides as penalties that in general show a lack of discipline and are easily avoidable.

In his eight years as the league’s head of officiating (2001-09), Pereira knew certain clubs consistently would be among the least-penalized.

“You looked at the Patriots and you looked at the Jets and you looked at Mike Holmgren’s Seattle Seahawks, you looked at certain teams and year in and year out they had the fewest amount of penalties,’’ he said.

“It has to do, I think, with teams that pay attention to penalty prevention in practice. I know that Bill does that and I know the Jets did that and I know the Seahawks did that under Mike’s run and they were just very conscious of the importance of penalty yards.’’

If the playoffs were to start today, seven of the 12 teams in the postseason would be among the top half of the league when it comes to fewest penalties. Last year’s Super Bowl winner, Green Bay, finished the season tied for third-fewest, though its opponent in the game, Pittsburgh, was tied for 19th.

Still, everything is relative. There have been a few times this season when the Patriots have had a killer penalty - or at least one that does a bit of damage.

In the first game of the season, Nate Solder, making his NFL debut, was flagged for holding on an 18-yard pass to Wes Welker, who was tackled at the 1-yard line.

Instead of first and goal, the Patriots faced second and 20 from the Miami 29; two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal attempt.

New England went on to win the game, but rather than going into the locker room with a 21-7 lead, the cushion was just 7 points.

The most damaging penalty for the Patriots came in Week 9 against the Giants. Sergio Brown’s pass interference on Victor Cruz with about 30 seconds left gave New York a fresh set of downs from the 1-yard line. Three plays later, Eli Manning found Jake Ballard for the winning touchdown, as Tom Brady lost at home in the regular season for the first time since 2006.

But opponents have had their share of “bonehead plays,’’ too - and among the most egregious were those called against a former Patriot, Richard Seymour, when he faced his old team as a member of the Raiders in October.

Seymour was flagged twice on the Patriots’ first possession that day, both of them 15-yard penalties. Not surprisingly, they led directly to New England getting its first touchdown.

The Chiefs also had an early miscue two weeks ago. Receiver Steve Breaston was called for an illegal shift, a 5-yard penalty. Instead of looking at a second-and-goal play from the 2, Kansas City was pushed back to the 10. Andre Carter then dropped Kansas City quarterback Tyler Palko for a 6-yard loss, and the Chiefs had to take a chip-shot field goal and a 3-0 lead.

Could it have made a difference in a game that became a blowout? Who knows - but you can’t beat a team that scores 30 points a game with field goals.

As Belichick says, the goal is to avoid self-inflicted wounds.

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