The first week of training camp, NFL officials visited the Steelers for a few days to meet with players and coaches about the new rules the league is implementing this season as well as the old ones they are being told to emphasize.
The officials showed a video, instructed players in the classroom, then worked practices to demonstrate how penalties, especially illegal contact and defensive holding, would be called.
Early in the first practice the officials worked, Steelers cornerback William Gay was flagged for holding. Gay complained about the call, professing his innocence. The official also got an earful from cornerback Ike Taylor and other defensive backs watching from the sidelines.
That was one month ago and nothing has changed.
Officials continue to throw flags in preseason games with alarming regularity. Defensive players continue to complain.
Penalties are up by 45 percent overall this preseason and defensive penalties have almost doubled. Those of the defensive holding or illegal contact variety have more than tripled.
In the Steelers-Eagles game Thursday night there were 31 penalties, 27 that were accepted. That’s about the league average through three preseason games. Last preseason, there was an average of 16.5 penalties per game.
Of those 27 penalties Thursday, Taylor and Cortez Allen, the other starting cornerback, were flagged five times.
“It’s a little frustrating,” Allen said. “I have to admit that. It puts more emphasis on cleaner technique and things like that. It’s something we have to deal with. We’re professionals and it’s something we have to adjust to. I’m paid to make adjustments. It is frustrating at times, but it’s where we are right now.”
For fans, the end results are longer games that lack flow. Even former players employed by the league’s television network are voicing their displeasure with the way games are being officiated.
“Love this game, but these D-fensive PI calls r driving me crazy - AND I’M AN OFFENSIVE GUY! Give ’em a chance!” NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner tweeted Friday night during the Green Bay-Oakland game.
For players, defensive backs in particular, there is mass confusion and disappointment. According to Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, at that classroom session the first week of camp, officials said there also would be an emphasis on offensive pass interference, too. However, offensive pass interference penalties have not been called with as much frequency.
“We’re trying to adjust to the new rules they have out there,” Mitchell said. “At some point we have to adjust our game so they don’t call penalties. I don’t know if the league will go back on their stance of wanting to call those. I know there haven’t been as many pass offensive interference penalties as they made us believe there were going to be. They’re still pushing off just as much, and they’re calling every time there is an illegal contact or a hold [on defenders]. We have to find a balance as a league and get that corrected. As far as fans go, this is the game you have to look forward to seeing.”
Instead of starting the season the week of Labor Day, the NFL should have kicked off in the second week of June — on Flag Day.
Take the third defensive series for the Steelers Thursday as an example. They were penalized three times for either interference or illegal contact in the span of 13 plays.
“To be honest with you, at times it doesn’t even feel like we’re that handsy,” Allen said. “We just have to get a better understanding of how they’re calling it so we know where the gray areas are. It’s fixable and we’ll fix it.”
In the fourth quarter, two Steelers were penalized for defensive holding on the same play. That it came on a second-and-22 illustrates how much offenses are benefitting from the rules emphases. Those penalties are 5-yarders and come with an automatic first down.
“Sometimes you get a third-down stop, you turn around and see a flag, and now you have to keep going,” cornerback Antwon Blake said.
Dean Blandino, vice president of officiating for the NFL, told NFL Network late last week he expects the number of penalties to decrease by the time the regular season starts, but he failed to say how that would happen.
“I think there’s an adjustment period for our officials, for the coaches and our players,” Blandino said. “When the regular season rolls around, I think everybody will be on the same page and I think you’ll see those foul totals go down.”
For now, it appears the players and officials are playing a high-stakes game of chicken. Each side is waiting for the other to adjust and neither has blinked.
“I think the thing is we’re going to have to adjust our game kind of like the hitting up high thing,” Mitchell said. “It’s just so hard to do. When someone pushes you, you pull them. There is a balance. If you’re calling it every time I pull but not every time they push, it’s going to be hard. It’s an offensive league. That’s kind of what they want. We all have to adjust our game and play accordingly.”
NOTE — Former Steelers offensive lineman from 1952-54 Pete Ladygo died Friday at 86.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.