Three penalties for 21 yards is acceptable. Ten penalties for 89 yards is the opposite of that.
The Steelers are 2-0 to open a regular season for the first time since 2017, but last Sunday at Heinz Field they appeared at times to be trying hard to prevent that from happening. But in the end, they made enough plays to overcome themselves.
"We were too highly penalized in the game," said Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference to echo what he said immediately after the 26-21 victory over the Denver Broncos. "It hurt our efforts on both sides of the ball. It hurt our efforts in terms of possessing the ball on offense. We had two critical holding calls in the first half of the game that put us behind the chains and essentially stopped drives. Ball possession and drives, there's too much scarcity in that discussion to get major penalties and throw yourself behind the chains. We're just not good enough to overcome those things at this juncture. I would imagine not many of us in this game are that good at this juncture."
The two offensive holding calls in the first half both were assigned to tight ends. With the Steelers holding a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter, a holding penalty on Vance McDonald nullified a 16-yard run by James Conner on a first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 42-yard line and disrupted what looked at the time to be some decent rhythm by the offense. That possession ended shortly after with a punt.
The second holding call was on Eric Ebron, and it turned a second-and-8 at midfield into a second-and-18, and two plays later the Steelers again were in punt formation.
"On the defensive side of the ball, we didn't play clean enough on the back end on possession downs," said Tomlin. "They were able to extend some drives because of (defensive pass interference) and things of that nature. When you get (an opponent) to that point where you have them in a third-down situation, and you have the ball snapped and you're executing the rush, there's just too much ground covered to start over and give them a new set of downs."
The first of four defensive pass interference penalties came on the first third-down situation of the game, and the Steelers then plagued themselves with similar penalties in similar situations throughout.
In the third quarter, on the Broncos' first possession, Minkah Fitzpatrick was flagged for an illegal horse-collar tackle at the end of a 14-yard completion to Noah Fant, which helped get Denver to a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line. The Broncos settled for a field goal there that sliced the Steelers lead to 17-6.
On Denver's next possession, still in the third quarter, a pass interference penalty on Fitzpatrick converted a third-and-2 to keep the drive alive, and the later in the same possession a roughing the passer call on Mike Hilton turned what would have been a third-and-10 from the Steelers 35-yard line into a first-and-10 at the 20-yard line, and the next play was a touchdown pass to Fant, which was followed by a 2-point conversion pass to Fant, and the Steelers lead had shrunk to 17-14.
In the fourth quarter, a pass interference penalty on Devin Bush was part of a Denver touchdown drive that pulled the Broncos to 26-21, and then a fourth pass interference penalty, on Terrell Edmunds, converted a third-and-11 with 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"We also had a punt return for a touchdown called back because of a block in the back," said Tomlin. "We're not only analyzing and openly talking about the penalties, but we're working hard to rectify that. We intend to bring some officials to our practice work this week in an effort to make a point of emphasis in that area. That's important for us. That was a catalyst for a lot of negativity in the game for us."
Tomlin said the Steelers will bring officials to work some practices, and he said the team is in contact with the NFL office to make sure this is done according to league's COVID-19 protocols. In past years, securing officials to work practices could be as simple as contacting some guys who live in the area to come to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for the afternoon, but in 2020 nothing is simple.
"We're going through the logistical procedures to secure some officiating for practice," said Tomlin. "We've been in communication with the league office to make sure we adhering to all of the protocols and make sure we're doing what's necessary to make sure we're in compliance and everyone is safe. The bottom line is we need to ratchet up our quality of play in that area, and that's just a reasonable approach to take in doing so."
And in the process of ratcheting up the quality of their play, there will be no complaining about what was called.
"We coach. We don't officiate the game," said Tomlin. "We're not assessing judgment based on what's called, we're just acknowledging what's called, and we're making whatever necessary change in our behavior to make sure that it's not called moving forward. It's as simple as that for us."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"The only pre-existing injury prior to this weekend was to David DeCastro. He was in the building on Monday and Tuesday, and the schedule is for him to participate in practice this week and to let the quality of that participation, the result of that participation be our guide in terms of determining his availability for the game. We're at that stage now with him. In-stadium (against the Broncos) we had a number of bumps and bruises associated with play. Guys could be limited at the early portions of the week, but I doubt it will be significant in terms of their availability (for the game). Tyson Alualu has a knee contusion; Bud Dupree has some discomfort in his shoulder; Diontae Johnson has a toe issue that he has been dealing with. We'll continue to manage some of the veteran players in the way that we have managed them from a participation (in practice) standpoint at the early portions of the week. Some veteran guys, the cumulative effect of their careers require less physical preparation in an effort to be ready to play. That aids in the preservation of their bodies, but it also provides quality reps for a younger guy who could need those reps and use those reps for game preparation and growth. We feel like we get two things done when we take that approach, and we'll continue with that this week."