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The Steelers need to adjust in-game to variances in officiating

In today’s NFL, one of the biggest things that can turn the tide throughout the course of a game is a team’s ability to continually make in-game adjustments. Whether it be getting the right coverage on defense or catching your opponent with the wrong personnel in order to hit a big play down the field, there are a number of things that a team can do while the game is going on that could be the difference between victory or defeat.

Unfortunately, another aspect of the game that too many times weighs into the outcome is the presence of the officiating crew. While they are there to supposedly police the game in a fair and accurate manner, too many times a questionable call comes out in a key moment that affects the outcome so much more than the neutral third-party ever should.

For a team to not get bit by the poor officiating bug, one of the things they need to do is also make their in-game adjustments according to the particular officiating crew working their contest and how things have played out throughout the game. Whether it be where a player lines up before the snap, what they get away with throughout the course of the play, or how players conduct themselves post-whistle could be the difference between something being a penalty or simply let go. The ability for the players to get a feel for the officiating crew and what they will call is something teams must do week in and week out..

During Tuesday’s press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin addressed this issue in his opening statement. With the Steelers receiving two personal foul penalties in their last game, the question of player discipline has been a topic of discussion since the Steelers exited the field in Los Angeles. But was this a case of the players being out of control, or them simply not reading the situation of how tightly this particular officiating crew was going to call things?

“Oftentimes, it’s our job to feel the tenor of a crew and adjust our behavior accordingly,” Tomlin stated. “And we got into that game and that crew had a certain tenor and we didn’t adjust to it. And as professionals, that’s our job. And so, am I worried about those issues being an issue moving forward? No, I’m not. But it is a great opportunity to talk about learning the tenor of a crew.”

So when it came to the penalties on Sunday, Coach Tomlin indirectly said it was more of an issue of the sensitivity of this particular crew than it is a problem going forward with the Steelers wide receivers. But from Sunday’s game, it wasn’t just about the personal foul penalties.

“Sometimes certain crews are more tolerant regarding certain things than others,” Tomlin explained. “And that’s just, you know, the reality of the National Football League. T.J. (Watt), for example, got a penalty for lining up in the neutral zone at a significant time in the second half of that game. It was a third down, possession down that we won. A lot of crews will warn you when someone’s lined up in the neutral zone or cutting it close from that perspective, some don’t. It’s our job to get a sense of how the game is being played that day.”

While we see offensive linemen push the limits of how far into the backfield they line up on the passing play to have time to react to the pass rushers, pass rushers also push the limit of approaching the line of scrimmage while they’re getting ready for the snap. These are simply two examples of how officiating crew may let things go or even warn a player before throwing a flag in a key situation. But there are even more situations where knowing what the official will tolerate can be the difference between a penalty and a no-call.

“From a holding perspective, from a DPI perspective, there are a lot of things that you could discuss regarding having a feel for the tenor of a crew. The worst thing that we did in that game, is we didn’t have a sense of that tenor, and we didn’t adjust.”

When watching a game either at home or in the stadium, it’s not always easy to get that feel from the officials when it comes to the players talking trash or other extracurricular activities following the whistle. Sometimes warnings are issued about various potential penalties that fans are likely not aware that they occurred. Coach Tomlin explained this was the case earlier in the game with a play that many probably aren’t even sure which one he was precisely referencing.

“Najee (Harris) had a confrontation post snap early in the game, where he was jawing back and forth with a member of their defense, and that crew expressed their tenor at that time and as a collective, we didn’t do a good enough job. I didn’t do a good enough job as a leader, making sure that we adjusted. And so, that’s why some of the penalties were as they were. But it’s a good lesson for us moving forward, and as I mentioned, it’s good to learn lessons as you win.”

Until the NFL embraces the technology at their fingertips, differences in officiating both from crew to crew and throughout the game is something players, coaches, and fans are all stuck with. If the NFL had officiating that was top of the line week in and week out, there wouldn’t be a call for reforms like there has been in recent seasons. But just like players aren’t perfect on every play, neither are the officials. The human element of officiating is something that can’t be legislated out of the game. But understanding the differences in those humans can often determine whether or not a team is marching backwards to begin the next play after a costly penalty.


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