PITTSBURGH (AP) — There are penalties Mike Tomlin won’t excuse but is willing to tolerate, like the facemask flag running back Le’Veon Bell drew in Baltimore when an attempted stiff-arm went awry.
It’s the other kinds of penalties — the ones borne out of a lack of concentration or execution — that serve as nails on a chalkboard to the Pittsburgh Steelers coach.
And at the moment, the sound is deafening.
The Steelers (4-4) have racked up 29 penalties during the three-game losing streak they take into next weekend’s visit from Dallas (7-1) and nearly half of them have been pre-snap infractions like false starts and illegal formations that are easily avoidable by simply paying attention to detail.
“Those things are under our control and we need to eliminate yesterday,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “You can frame it how you want to frame it. The penalties have to stop.”
They didn’t in Baltimore on Sunday, when a torrent of flags set the tone in an ugly 21-14 setback that knocked Pittsburgh out of first place and left the locker room and the coaching staff mystified at how things have gone so wrong, so quickly. A month ago, the Steelers were 4-1 and firmly in control of the AFC North. Now they’re in second place behind the Ravens and in the middle of their longest slump since dropping the first four games in 2013.
“I think there’s anger about how we played because we’re capable of more than that,” Tomlin said.
Maybe, but it wouldn’t take much to show improvement over the first three quarters against the Ravens when the Steelers managed all of two first downs while drawing 89 yards in penalties. Among the miscues: an illegal formation penalty that gifted Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker an extra five yards at the end of the first half and gave him enough room to drill a 59-yard field goal that put the Ravens up 10-0.
“It’s tough to win in this league,” Tomlin said. “It’s increasingly more difficult when you shoot yourself in the foot. We’ve been good at that in the past. We need to get back to that.”
Pittsburgh has been among the 10 fewest penalized teams in the NFL in three of the last four years but is on pace to draw 110 penalties in 2016, which would be the highest in Tomlin’s decade-long tenure. Asked if referees are calling things tighter than they have in the past, with penalties up around the league, and linebacker Arthur Moats shrugged his shoulders.
“A flag is a flag,” he said. “Maybe they’re calling stuff that they haven’t in the past, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a penalty.”
Pittsburgh can’t afford to give away yards against the Cowboys, who have ripped off seven straight wins behind rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas isn’t turning it over and isn’t beating itself with careless missteps, things the Steelers have been unable to avoid.
Then again, it’s the presence of those correctable mistakes that has the Steelers optimistic they can go on a run like they did last season, when a 6-2 second half helped them to a second straight playoff berth.
“If it’s something you’re playing your best ball and you’re still getting beat, that’s a major issue,” guard Ramon Foster said. “A lot of the issues we have in all three phases have been self-inflicted.”
NOTES: C Maurkice Pouncey underwent a surgical procedure to fix a dislocated thumb. Tomlin said there’s a chance Pouncey can still play this weekend. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (sprained foot) and RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) are still being evaluated.
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