Dirty Laundry: Emphasis on the pre-snap

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
12:00
PM ET
It's hard to remember anything about last Sunday's game at Ford Field other than, of course, the masterful 80-yard drive that lifted the Detroit Lions from a three-point deficit to a 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. A win is the most effective beauty product out there.

(I'm told. I wouldn't know. On multiple levels.)

Nevertheless, it's worth noting that a Lions defensive player committed a pre-snap penalty on three of their first nine (unofficial) plays of the game. Then, in the second quarter, left guard Rob Sims was called for a false start. All told, it was four pre-snap infractions over the first 16 minutes, 32 seconds of the game, the continuation of an occasionally dormant but mostly consistent trend that has plagued the Lions in recent seasons.

What's different this year is that the NFL has made pre-snap offensive movement a point of emphasis, policing it more strictly than before. That helps explain some false start penalties, but in theory it should reduce the number of issues on the defense. Ostensibly, offenses should be getting more blame in situations where players on both sides of the ball move before the snap.

Through seven games, the Lions have committed a total of 27 pre-snap penalties. Not all of them have been accepted, but that doesn't erase the mistake. Of that total, 11 have been false starts and 16 have come on either encroachment, a neutral zone infraction or defensive offsides.

I don't have big-picture rankings for you, but I can tell you that according to the NFL, the Lions' total of false starts rank them No. 22. Their seven neutral zone infractions rank No. 21, their five encroachments are 17th and their four defensive offsides are 16th. Keep in mind that not all teams have played the same number of games yet because of bye weeks.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz has largely waved off the impact of penalties over the years but, like most coaches, he has always decried pre- and post-snap infractions. The new point of emphasis, however, has clouded the analysis. How much are the Lions to blame? How much is based on league-wide factors beyond their control? For the record, here's how the NFL's competition committee worded its directive to officials this spring:

"The Committee reviewed video of pre-snap movement by offensive players and agreed that special emphasis should be devoted to acts that are clearly in violation of the existing rule for false starts. Prior to a snap, any quick, abrupt movement by an offensive player, or several offensive players in unison, which simulates the start of a play, is a foul.

"These acts include (a) a quarterback in shotgun formation thrusting his hands forward in an exaggerated manner when there is not a simultaneous snap, (b) abrupt movement of the ball by the center, (c) abrupt movement of the center’s head or other body part, and (d) a quick abrupt shift by two or more players in unison. Non-abrupt movement that is part of normal pre-snap action will not be prohibited, including pointing and signaling among offensive players."

Sometimes in these situations, you see a big uptick in penalties for a point of emphasis in the first season in hopes of setting a standard that teams will follow -- without such strict officiating -- in future years. In the case of the Lions, then, it's fair to provide a wider berth for the offensive false start penalties in 2012.

Defensively? I would say it's harder to excuse them. I know the Lions' defensive line is among the league's most aggressive, and perhaps a few pre-snap penalties are a fair price to pay if, on other plays, that aggressiveness leads to a big play. In the end, though, the ball is within a few yards of most defensive linemen. On the whole, it's fair to expect them to hold their ground until the snap at the professional level.

Below is an updated penalty tracker. It shows the Green Bay Packers as the most penalized team in the division, but keep in mind they have played eight games to the Lions' and Chicago Bears' seven. The Minnesota Vikings have played eight games, making their 48 penalties (including those declined) an impressive figure.

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