PITTSBURGH – Every summer, the NFL sends a group of officials to each training camp with a video explaining new rules and points of emphasis.
This year, teams were told officials would be making a point of calling holding penalties in the secondary and pass interference, both offensive and defensive.
In Thursday night’s 32-21 loss by the Steelers in Philadelphia, Ed Hochuli’s officiating crew showed the league wasn’t just paying lip service to those points of emphasis. Hochuli’s crew threw 30 penalty flags during the game, 27 of which were accepted, with 15 of those infractions being for illegal contact in the secondary or offensive or defensive pass interference.
Philadelphia hadn’t seen so many flags thrown since Betsy Ross was working on the original Stars and Stripes.
“We had some referees come to camp, and they flagged us,” said Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds. “We kind of knew it was going to happen. But it was a lot. A lot.”
It’s been happening all over the league in the preseason. The average amount of penalties called per game during the 2013 regular season was 14. This preseason, that number has jumped to 23.1 per game.
The Steelers, despite having 13 penalties accepted against the Eagles, have been penalized 26 times this preseason, one of the lower totals in the league. New Orleans has been penalized an NFL-high 42 times in three preseason games.
The NFL’s vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, told the NFL Network last week the league expected penalties to increase, at least early on.
“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 you’ll see those fouls go down.”
That might happen. Or, some feel teams will try to take advantage of officials who appear ready to call the slightest bit of contact.
“Maybe you start telling your receivers just to fall down on every play and hope you get a flag,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger might have only been slightly joking.
The penalty for illegal contact – anything outside of five yards of the line of scrimmage – is a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down. Defensive pass interference is a spot foul and automatic first down, meaning the offense gets the ball wherever the foul occurred and gets a first down. Offensive pass interference, which is rarely called, results in a 10-yard penalty against the offense.
What’s a defensive player to do when the league won’t allow any contact downfield?
“It’s no different than how they told us we have to hit people,” said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, referring to the league making hits on “defenseless” receivers and shots to the head out of the game. “You’ve just got to change your game, hit lower. It’s the same thing. We won’t grab.”
In the meantime, fans will continue to be treated to games in which there is a penalty called seemingly on every other play.
“Penalties are out of our control,” Mitchell said. “If they’re going to call it, they’re going to call it.
“That’s above my pay grade. I’m just a football player. What the referees or league is doing, that all starts at the top. By the time it gets to me, I have no control over it.”
Odds and end zones
Roethlisberger said he does not expect to play in the Steelers’ preseason finale Thursday against Carolina at Heinz Field. ... Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said any punishments, including suspensions, are possible for running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount following their arrest for possession of marijuana during a traffic stop last Wednesday. Bell also was charged with DUI. ... Tomlin said knee injuries suffered by linebackers Worilds and Sean Spence against the Eagles weren’t considered serious, though neither practiced Monday. ... The Steelers must trim their roster from 90 to 75 players by 4 p.m. today.