On a magical and snowy December night, the Buffalo Bills beat the Miami Dolphins and essentially locked up their third straight AFC East title. It was a terrific football game, with Tyler Bass hitting yet another field goal as time expired to win the game. The Bills improved to 11-3; the Dolphins sank to 8-6.
The third team on the field, the guys in stripes, had a solid game. The crew was headed by veteran official Bill Vinovich, one of only two active referees to officiate multiple Super Bowls. Vinovich is, plainly, a good official. While I think his crew had a strong game overall, their consistency on contact in the secondary was somewhat lacking.
Looking at the penalty statistics, you’d think it was as even and fair as it gets. The Buffalo Bills committed seven penalties and the Miami Dolphins had eight, but both teams had the same amount of penalty yards (51).
Buffalo had three offensive penalties for 20 yards, two defensive penalties for nine, and two special teams infractions for 22 yards. Miami had two offensive penalties for 10 yards, and six defensive fouls for 41.
Though the numbers were balanced, contact by Miami’s defensive backs was often flagged and similar contact from Buffalo’s was often ignored. Moreover, at the end of the second half, I think they did a poor job of identifying whether the ball was in the air on contact in the secondary, leading to debate about defensive holding vs. defensive pass interference. I’ll talk about that and more in this week’s five plays:
1.) No call for Defensive Pass Interference. Q2, 7:40.
On this 2nd and 6 play, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa tried to hit wide receiver Tyreek Hill on an out route on the left side of the field. Kaiir Elam was in press coverage against Hill, but Hill used his quickness to avoid getting jammed. The pass came in a little late and behind Hill, and Elam contacted the receiver prior to it arriving.
This is defensive pass interference. It’s not even a marginal call. Though the pass was behind the receiver, the cornerback still can’t interfere with the receiver before the ball’s arrival. I’m quite surprised this was missed, but fortunately for Miami, they converted the following third down.
A similar play occurred in the first quarter, with Tre’Davious White getting there early. That play wasn’t called a foul either. Though these no-calls are fine in a vacuum, when contextualized, they’re huge misses. Miami committed two defensive holdings and one DPI, and the Buffalo Bills committed neither over the course of the game.
2.) Late Substitution. Q2, just before 2 min warning.
This was a late and sloppy substitution from Buffalo, and the officials handled the situation correctly. It was a good idea; the Bills had just run a quarterback draw out of an empty set formation. The Dolphins had what appeared to be a dime personnel package on the field, with just one linebacker. Buffalo wanted to bring in a heavy formation for its 3rd and 1 play but, seemingly confused, brought on its big maulers far too late.
By rule, when the offense substitutes its personnel, the umpire will stand over the ball until the referee deems that the defense has had enough time to match. If this offensive substitution happens late in a play clock, well that’s just too darn bad for the offense. The Dolphins saw the Bills bring in a heavy package and the umpire stood over the ball while Miami changed its personnel.
In the clip, you can see two Buffalo Bills players entering the huddle after coming on the field with just 12 seconds on the play clock. This is not enough time for the Dolphins to be able to match substitutions, so, the umpire stood over the ball, allowing Miami to match. If the play clock runs out, well, that’s not Miami’s fault.
Substituting that late either demonstrates a staggering lack of rules knowledge from the offensive coaching staff or a really disjointed gameplan in not thinking ahead. Fortunately, Buffalo had a timeout and were able to use it to prevent a delay of game penalty. But that missing timeout – burned because of a late substitution – almost cost them points. If Josh doesn’t complete that crazy touchdown to James Cook at the end of the half, we are absolutely talking about this mistake from the offense way more than we are.
3.) Defensive Holding, Miami. Q2, 00:26 and 00:12.
Here’s a little bonus for you: the Dolphins were flagged twice inside 30 seconds for defensive holding. I’d argue the first play was enforced correctly but the second was not.
On the first play, cornerback Noah Igbinoghene was matched up against Dawson Knox. Igbinoghene jammed the tight end, but as Knox tried to escape downfield, the cornerback grabbed the tight end’s jersey and nearly pulled him to the turf. After letting go, Josh Allen targeted Knox near the goal line.
Though Igbinoghene face guarded Knox, he didn’t contact the tight end. Therefore, there couldn’t have been defensive pass interference on the play. The officials correctly ruled defensive holding.
This play was a little different. As Gabriel Davis made his break at the back of the end zone, cornerback Xavien Howard grabbed his jersey. The main difference between the two plays is that Howard didn’t let go. Allen targeted Davis near the back right pylon. As the ball was nearing him, Howard’s jersey grab prevented Davis from making a play on the ball.
It’s close, but it’s a really meaningful difference here between defensive holding and defensive pass interference. This close to the endzone, holding is half the distance to the goal, whereas pass interference would put the ball on the 1. Fortunately for Buffalo, they scored on the next play anyways, a four yard pass to James Cook.
My bet is that the crew discussed these plays in the locker room at halftime. It’s essential as a referee to trust your crew and listen when they tell you they think you made a mistake. Conversely, it’s important to tell your crewmates if you think they made an error. Perhaps this happened, and they vowed to focus extra hard on these types of plays in the second half.
It’s always nice when you make a particular play a point of emphasis, and then it happens, and then you nail it. Keep this in mind for play #5.
4.) Unnecessary Roughness, Miami. Q4, 10:16.
The officials correctly ruled unnecessary roughness on this first down scramble from Josh Allen. It was a very similar play to this one from Week 11, when Allen scrambled to the left near the goal line.
In the play from the Browns game, Allen had not yet stepped on the sideline. He was technically still a runner, and still in bounds. Though an unnecessarily dirty play to hit the quarterback’s injured elbow, the play was legal.
On Saturday Night, Josh did step out of bounds before the contact. It was late, it was unnecessary, and it was rough, even if Josh embellished a little. Even if the former play may be dirtier because the player specifically targeted Josh’s bad elbow, this play was illegal because Josh was out of bounds.
It was correctly enforced as unnecessary roughness. It’s the kind of play you can’t miss as an official, or the impending sideline scrum might become a full-blown brawl.
5.) Defensive Pass Interference and Defensive Holding, Miami. Q4, 00:50
In a very similar situation to the two plays at the end of the half, cornerback Kader Kohou got far too physical with a Buffalo Bills receiver, this time Isaiah McKenzie. The ball was snapped at the 34 yard line, and Kohou got beat off the jump. At about the 29 yard line, he started holding McKenzie’s right shoulder pad.
The ball was not in the air at this point, but the flag sure is. When Kohou finally let go of McKenzie’s shoulder pad (at about the 24 yard line), the flag was already in the air. This tells me that the side judge has defensive holding, not defensive pass interference.
Then, this play gets spicy. After committing the first penalty, Kohou slams into McKenzie before the ball arrives. Allen threw the ball off his back foot, and it hung up in the snowy air for a while. It was late and behind McKenzie, who was contacted as he adjusted to make the catch at the 13 yard line.
You can see the flag in the air as Kohou hit McKenzie before the ball arrives. Moreover, the side judge did not throw his hat, which either signals that only one foul took place, or he was too damn cold to bother (and I can’t blame him). But, judging by the officials’ discussion after the play, it looks like he thought Kohou committed two penalties.
The side judge’s back is to the camera, so we can’t know what he said to his crew chief. But after referee Bill Vinovich listens to his crewmate, he points to a spot downfield and appears to mouth, “Ok, so PI?” It looks like the side judge said he had defensive holding and defensive pass interference, and instructed his crew chief to only announce the steeper penalty.
Though Vinovich never announced defensive holding, the official game log from NFL.com notes that there was one. Officially, Kader Kohou committed two separate infractions on the play. Defensive holding to put the ball at the Miami 29, and defensive pass interference to put it at the 13. Obviously, the Bills would have accepted the latter penalty, so the crew felt it unnecessary to announce the former. But it was still an interesting play from a number of perspectives, particularly because a similar play happened at the end of the first half. Terrific adjustment and focus to get this right.
I thought Vinovich and his crew had a solid game, though I’m also a Buffalo Bills fan. The two biggest misses were the two missed defensive pass interference fouls in the first half, with both incorrect non-calls benefitting the Bills. There’s some merit to calling intentional grounding on Allen on that blown up RB pass. However, I don’t think it’s worth a flag.
I can see why Dolphins fans would be frustrated; I would be too. Perhaps if it were colder, like their coach had hoped, they’d have won the game.
Next up, the Buffalo Bills travel to the windy (and, judging by the forecast, cold and snowy) city to take on the Bears on Christmas Eve. Though I’d like another strong officiating performance for Christmas, I’d sure much rather a win, because a win brings with it a division title. Go Bills.
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