Antonio Brown. Le'Veon Bell. Cam Heyward.
A prediction of which players might represent the Steelers in the next Pro Bowl? A list of players who could be voted captains by their teammates in the near future? The next generation of team leaders?
Good guesses, all of them. But wrong. Those are the three guys who were penalized for taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct during the Steelers' stunning 27-24 loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field.
Thirteen for 125 yards.
Brown's receptions and yardage total from Sunday? Bell's rushing attempts and yardage total from Sunday? The number of sacks the Steelers defense has through the first four games of 2014 along with the yardage lost as a result?
More good guesses. But wrong. That represented the number of penalties committed by the Steelers that were accepted during the same stunning 27-24 loss to the Buccaneers, along with the yardage assessed as a result.
The typical procedure for Coach Mike Tomlin to meet the media following a Steelers game at Heinz Field would find him walking into the interview room about 10-15 minutes after it ended. This time, it was different. It almost seemed as though Tomlin was anxious to sit behind the microphone. It almost seemed as though he had something to get off his chest.
"I'll start by complimenting Coach Smith and the Buccaneers," Tomlin began. "They did what was necessary to win the game. But after a performance like that, I think it's appropriate that we look within and look at what it is that we are doing. The bottom line is that we are an undisciplined group. We are too highly penalized. Obviously, we are not coaching it. We are allowing it to happen. So I take responsibility for that. We are not going to win close football games being penalized in the manner in which we've been penalized over the first month of the season. It's unacceptable. It's inexcusable. In a nutshell, that is the story of the outcome of the performance. There are some positive things and there are some negative things any time you play football. That is the case. But the defining factor in determining the outcome of that football game is that we were too highly penalized. It's ridiculous."
Tomlin's choice of adjectives – unacceptable, inexcusable, ridiculous – certainly represents a sanitized version of the ones used by the bulk of the 62,910 partisans inside Heinz Field on an otherwise perfect late-September Sunday, and here are some numbers to provide additional detail to his point about the Steelers' highly penalized opening quarter of the 2014 season.
So far, the Steelers' four opponents have accepted 44 penalties for 387 yards. That averages out to 11 penalties for 97 yards per game, and at this pace the Steelers would hit 176 penalties for 1,448 yards for the entire regular season.
Unacceptable. Inexcusable. Ridiculous.
"We need to fix it. And if we don't we will continue to lose close football games. It's just that simple," said Tomlin. "Some of the penalties are technical or orientation-like, facemask penalties and things of that nature. Our tackling technique needs to improve. But some of the pre-snap and post-snap and post-play penalties are just lacking discipline. We have to fix it. I have to fix it. And I will."
If it isn't fixed – and immediately in terms of the taunting penalty on Bell and the unsportsmanlike conduct calls on both Brown and Heyward – there is nothing this Steelers team will be able to do to compensate. These Steelers simply aren't good enough to overcome those kinds of selfish self-inflicted wounds. Tomlin said those kinds of penalties cause teams to lose close games, and what those kinds of penalties also do is serve to make games close that otherwise would not be.
There are plenty of deficiencies to be identified in this Steelers' team, and yes, they were on display at various stages of the game against the Buccaneers. The pass rush wasn't what it needed to be against a young, stationary quarterback like Mike Glennon. There were too many receivers running free in the secondary. Ben Roethlisberger faced more pressure than Glennon.
But those are the kinds of things that can be overcome, and these Steelers already have shown they at least have enough in some other areas to compensate for their flaws to find ways to win games. What beat them today, what will surely cause a bitter end to their hopes for this season if left unchecked, were those selfish self-inflicted wounds.
As Tomlin said, penalties committed in the flow of a game – holding, facemask, pass interference – are annoying and costly, but they can be corrected with proper technique and better fundamentals. Taunting, unsportsmanlike conduct, dead-ball personal fouls and the like represent an attitude that winning teams never have. Those kinds of penalties represent the exact opposite of the team-first, hard-working identity Tomlin wants to instill.
In conclusion, there's this: If an individual wants to be selfish and draw one of those kinds of penalties, he needs to come back and make the catch on that perfectly thrown ball off the flea-flicker that may have iced the game, as Brown didn't; or run for the first down on the third-and-5 that would have allowed the team to run out the clock in victory formation, as Bell didn't; or sack the quarterback on second-and-10 from the 46-yard line with 35 seconds left and the opponent out of timeouts, as Heyward didn't.
"Post-play penalties are ridiculous," said Tomlin. "That we have full control over."
It's time to re-take control. Immediately, and by whatever means necessary.