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Tim Benz: Not buying Mike Tomlin’s explanation of Steelers penalties

Tim Benz
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BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 26: An official picks up a penalty flag in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins game at M&T Bank Stadium on October 26, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

This is what Mike Tomlin said after his Steelers were flagged for penalties 15 times (12 accepted) against the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 season opener.

“I just look at penalties relative to our opponent,” Tomlin said on Sept. 11. “Sometimes games are highly officiated, and there are a lot of penalties. Sometimes they are not. I always look at penalties relative to the people who we are competing against. That’s the truest barometer.”

To that end, the Browns were flagged 14 times that day (11 accepted). So that’s pretty similar. Hence why Tomlin seemed so blase about the volume of infractions against his players.

Same thing after the Kansas City game in Week 2 when the Steelers drew 14 flags (12 accepted) and the Chiefs incurred 13 (12 accepted).

And again Monday night in Tampa when the teams combined for 26 flags. The Steelers had 15 (13 accepted), and the Bucs were whistled for 11 (nine accepted).

Yes, the officiating has been balanced in each of the Steelers games so far. Poorly officiated in many cases. But balanced nonetheless.

Unfortunately for Tomlin and his team, balance doesn’t explain frequency. Look at the opponents. The Chiefs had those 12 penalties in Pittsburgh. Well, they had 12 combined in the other two games. That average of eight penalties per game is about one flag above the average per game in the league.

The Browns and Bucs are tied at 21st in the league at 6.67 penalties per game, a little bit below the league norm.

So it appears playing the Steelers induces more flags, not the other way around.

Granted, the Steelers have gotten some pretty flag-intensive officiating crews thus far. The Steelers have been assigned Pete Morelli’s crew in Week 3 (18 accepted penalties per game), Shawn Smith’s in Week 1 (17.5 accepted penalties per game) and Jerome Boger’s in Week 2 (15.6 accepted penalties per game).

Based on data compiled from ProFootballReference.com and NFLpenalties.com , all of those averages are above the norm for penalties per game across the league (14.67).

Even though those crews may be on the trigger-happy side, in each case, the Steelers game these packs of zebras has worked has been their most frequently flagged contest of 2018.

I assume you see where I’m going with this?

Taking in all the variables, the Steelers are the constant. They just commit too many penalties. It seems to me that the Steelers dictate the tone of the game more so than the officials, the opponent, the venue or the weather.

“We’ve got to play cleaner than what we did (Monday) night,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “We played hard. But we have to play cleaner, play smarter.”

“We’ll keep working our tails off to stay within the rules,” he added.

There’s a lot of work to do in that regard.

Here is where the concern, or the disconnect, between Tomlin’s downplaying of the problem and the fan base’s obsession over it occurs.

Tomlin also reverted to his post-Cleveland statements.

“Penalties were called in a similar fashion on both sides,” Tomlin said. “From that perspective, it’s fair. I don’t worry a lot about how the game is officiated so long as it is being officiated in the same way.”

Well, he should care. Committing fewer penalties should help you win. If you are whistled less frequently than your opponent more weeks than not, you should have the advantage. Last year’s 13-3 Steelers were at least middle of the pack (13th) in penalties with 105.

This year’s team leads all of the NFL with 37 through three games.

Tomlin’s favorite phrase this year has been “I don’t want paint with a broad brush.”

Unfortunately, the fans and media often do. The commonly repeated notion that Tomlin’s teams are undisciplined won’t go away so long as these Steelers keep attracting penalties at such an alarming rate.

Tomlin may not care about that. Although, he will care if his team’s reckless disregard of the rules keeps it out of the playoffs.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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