Tim Benz: NFL needs more points, fewer penalties
Hurricane coverage. Political coverage. Cord-Cutting. Anthem sitting. Players misbehaving. Poor prime-time matchups. Not enough pace of play. Too much focus on fantasy stats.
You have heard all these explanations for why NFL interest and ratings have lagged at times over the last two years.
Most alarming for the NFL is that there is probably at least a little truth in every reason. And some of them are out of its control.
But here are two more contributing factors that might be solved through improved play:
• Not enough points.
• Too many penalties.
Scoring is down early in 2017. Last year, 24 teams scored 20-plus points per game. This year, only 15 have done so through the first two weeks.
This week, heading into “Monday Night Football,” 15 teams didn't reach 20 points. Six scored 10 or fewer. And, somehow, five teams scoring under 20 points won anyway.
Most of those numbers were much in line with Week 1 as well.
“It's still early in the season right now,” Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant said. “It's only been two games. Probably guys just coming out of training camp. Trying to get into the right mode. It'll probably start going up in the next few weeks.”
That's a fair point. Coaches frequently talk about September football being a bit ragged and the defenses being ahead of the offenses.
But even looking at the snapshot of games from the first two weeks last year versus this year indicates a drop in scoring from 45.06 points per game to 40.16.
Roughly five points per game may not look like a lot. But ask the guys in Vegas who set the over/under totals how much of a swing that is.
So are we simply talking about even more early-season rust than normal? Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats seemed to think it's something beyond that.
“When I first came to the league eight years ago, it was a lot more power running with two back sets. A lot of downhill running. Now you're seeing a lot more of the five-wide sets. They'll spread the ball. A lot more speed. Defenses are adjusting to that. They are drafting that way. They are picking up a lot more players that can be multiple in the sense that they can cover receivers and still stop the run.”
The Steelers drafted linebacker Ryan Shazier in part for those reasons. But he says league-wide defensive improvement is more about mentality.
“Guys are just tired of getting beat,'' Shazier said. ”All you hear is, ‘Man, these are some great offenses.' You get tired of hearing that.”
The Steelers are contributing to the good defensive trend. Their defense has allowed the third-fewest yards per game (237). And their 13.5 points per game is sixth best.
Unfortunately, they are also contributing to a negative trend league-wide in terms of drawing penalties. The Steelers lead the NFL with 23 penalties after two games, and an average of 108 yards in flags over the first two contests.
Last season, only three clubs exceeded 70-plus yards in penalties per game (Oakland, Jacksonville, and Miami). Eight teams are on that pace so far. And six are above the Raiders' league-leading 77.1 yards per game of a year ago.
The Jaguars and Raiders were the only teams to draw more than eight flags per game in '16. In both weeks so far of this new season, 12 teams have walked away with eight penalties or more in a game. Four games this year have featured at least 19 combined penalties.
“That's part of the game. You deal with penalties,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “You grow from them. You try to eliminate them. Then you hit December. And you keep it clean.”
No NFL fan needs a perfectly clean game. And if one did occur, we would complain that more penalties should have been called anyway.
And no one needs Big 12-style shootouts every Sunday, either.
But if the scores are low, make them low because the defenses are good. Not because offenses can't get out of their own way and because the referees are getting more face time on TV than the quarterbacks.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.