PITTSBURGH – Before the Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs two years ago, head coach Mike Tomlin made sure he told his team the officials for the game would be the same crew that worked the game between the two AFC North rivals earlier in the season.
That game had been heated, but John Parry’s crew had called just nine penalties in a 33-20 win by Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.
“We had the same officiating crew when we played the Bengals in the playoffs that we had when we played them and things started to heat up,” said Steelers offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert.
“We knew what we were dealing with.”
Unlike the first meeting, Parry’s crew was on edge for the rematch, calling 18 combined penalties for 231 yards. The most costly penalties came late in the game when Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict was whistled for hitting Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head. That was followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on cornerback Adam Jones that set up Pittsburgh’s game-winning field goal in the 18-16 win.
Coincidentally, Parry’s crew will be working the Steelers’ game this weekend when Pittsburgh (3-1) hosts Jacksonville (2-2) at Heinz Field.
Penalties are up around the league with more than 14 being called in each game, the highest level since 2005. Parry’s crew has called slightly more penalties (.53) than average this season.
The Steelers pay attention to who is officiating their games as part of an analytics package delivered to Tomlin and his staff each week. They learn not just about the officials for the upcoming game but about the tendencies of their own team and their opponents.
“We have guys in the building that do a very good job of presenting information. But then again, you’ve got to be respectful of the game and some of the on-field action in understanding these aren’t computers on the other side of the field,” said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “There are some tendencies you can look at in other teams and yourself and learn from.”
In the past, Tomlin would sometimes make note of who the officials would be for big games, such as that playoff meeting against Cincinnati. Several players say he has been more vocal about it this year.
“We have to discuss it. You have to know the kind of crew that you have out there,” said defensive end Stephon Tuitt. “We know that this crew is a very technical, every-little-bit-type of crew. Anything you do that is not within the guidelines, they’re going to call it.”
Tomlin made mention of that earlier this week when he said he told his team to expect more penalties in its game at Baltimore, a 26-9 Pittsburgh victory, because veteran official Walt Anderson’s crew was working the game.
According to Pro Football Reference, which tracks how many penalties each official’s crew assesses, Anderson’s crew typically calls more penalties than average each season. This year, Anderson’s group is calling more than 2 ½ penalties and nearly 20 yards more than the average crew.
“Just like how everybody studies us and know what kind of players we are, we have to know what kind of refs we have,” said Gilbert. “You have to know who you can get extra leverage on. I think this year, pretty much all of them have been tight. A lot of penalties being called. Maybe it’s a record. I’m glad he brought it to our awareness this year.”
The Steelers have gotten caught up in the penalty wave. Their 37 penalties through four games is second in the league, and the 31 infractions called against opposing teams is tied for sixth.
But being more penalized hasn’t factored into wins and losses yet. The Steelers are 3-1, and Kansas City, which has been penalized the third-most times in the league, is the only unbeaten team at 4-0.
Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu spent his first seven seasons with Jacksonville before joining Pittsburgh this year. He played for a lot of different coaches with Jacksonville and can’t remember when he first heard a coaching staff stress which crews were working a game. But he knows it happened and sees the value, especially with the league cracking down on player safety.
“They do it a lot here, emphasize what they’re calling,” said Alualu. “But I think a lot of it is because of where the league is going, protecting players.”
And in the end, the Steelers are looking for any little edge they can gain, even if it is one gained through knowing who is officiating their game.
“I want to look at a crew the same way, that they’re going to call everything. But that doesn’t happen,” said Tuitt. “You just know that. When you do get a chance to know the information that a certain crew calls it a certain type of way, you do want to try to take advantage of that. It’s just a little nugget. This crew looks at this, they emphasize this a little bit more than the other crews. Just knowing that nugget helps you and benefits you in that position that they call the ones they call more than other refs around the league.”
Odds and end zones
Gilbert, who was a full participant Wednesday, did not practice Thursday as the Steelers were forced indoors because of rain. Gilbert missed last week’s game in Baltimore with a hamstring injury. ... Sunday’s game will feature the NFL’s top two pass defenses. Jacksonville allows 147 yards passing per game. The Steelers have given up 154 per contest.