Cincinnati Bengals 28 at Philadelphia Eagles 13
Fourth-and-3, Cincinnati at PHI 26, 13:30 of Q4
(Field Goal formation) PENALTY on PHI, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 13 yards, enforced at PHI 26 - No Play. Defense simulated the snap count.
Simulating the snap count is an odd penalty. The defense is given free rein to scream most anything they want pre-snap. They're given leave to make subtle or even overt movements prior to the snap. They're even allowed to jump into the neutral zone, so long as the offensive line does not react and the ball is not snapped before the defender jumps back.
What other strange conduct could a defense engage in to draw an unsportsmanlike penalty, when defenders are already given so much leeway with pre-snap vocalizations and maneuvering? Let's see what the rulebook says:
12-3-1: There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others:
(i) Using acts or words by the defensive team that are designed to disconcert an offensive team at the snap.
That isn't particularly helpful. What exactly did the Eagles' defense do? One of the players called out a signal "similar to the offense's cadence." Unfortunately, the NFL Network didn't have audio, and the only thing that can be made out is some player screaming. Trying to mask the snap count is possibly disconcerting, but the referee specifically said the penalty was for a signal similar to the offense's cadence. The first thought on a weird penalty such as this (especially one that has a long conference) is that the call was changed from the original flag, but the only obvious penalties in this situation are false start and offside, since the play was whistled dead pre-snap. The coach's film seems to back this up, as the line judge throws his flag and runs to the referee as he would to report a penalty.
That makes this call even stranger; a line infraction is far more safe and easy a call than an unsportsmanlike, and the yardage penalized to the defense far less severe. A quick perusal of our penalty database reveals no other penalties in the past three years for a defense simulating the snap count, but it has happened before. The other strange thing about this call is that it was a special teams play, where the snap count would be different to the offense's cadence, facing a field goal defense that had only seen a few snaps in the game.
However, considering there was a long officials' conference and two easier penalties to call, so it seems very likely that one of the officials (likely the umpire) did actually hear a defender mimicking or interrupting the snap count. The referee wouldn't go with a strange penalty like that unless his guy was absolutely certain, especially when it is one of the most rare penalties in the game. It's a shame that Clete Blakeman didn't accidentally leave his mic on during the conference.