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Steelers defense waving flag on penalty calls

| Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A few more games, a few more flags, and Troy Polamalu probably won't be the only one who's throwing a temper tantrum among the Steelers' defensive players.

As penalties designed to aid passing offenses go up, the level of play of the Steelers defense is going down. With the NFL's emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact likely to continue into the season, the Steelers know they can't keep playing this way.

Even if they're not exactly sure how to play these days.

“This is definitely new to me, as far as how (they're) calling it right now,” cornerback Cortez Allen said.

Already, fans on various social media outlets are raging against the endless flags that are falling throughout ever-longer preseason games. Through the Saturday night games, 1,071 flags were thrown in 47 games, an average of nearly 23 per game — and an increase of more than 40 percent from the 2013 preseason.

Of those flags, 144 were for defensive holding, 80 were for illegal contact and 61 were for defensive pass interference.

“It's an offensive league, and that's kind of what they want,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said.

During their 31-21 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia on Thursday, the Steelers were called for four defensive holdings (one declined), one illegal contact (declined), plus one illegal hands and one roughing the passer penalty.

If that seems like a lot, it is.

In the last three seasons, the Steelers drew only four illegal contact penalties, an average of one-plus a season. They also were called 19 times for defensive holding, or less than one every other game.

Considering that the Steelers allowed the Eagles nearly 500 yards in total offense — an enormous amount in a preseason game — the last thing they need is a tightening of rules that will make it even harder to defend.

NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino expects a decrease in calls once the season starts and players adjust, but he also told MMQB.com that “the way the game's being officiated now is the way it's going to be officiated when the season begins.”

“The thing is they're saying we're going to have to adjust our game, kind of like (they did to eliminate) hitting up high,” Mitchell said. “It's so hard to do because when someone pushes you, you pull them, and there's a balance.

“But if you're calling it every time there's a pull, but you don't call every time you push, it's going to be hard.”

Still, the Steelers are attempting to be diplomatic about the enforcement crackdown — and, of course, no player wants to be fined for criticizing the officiating even before games start to count.

“Right now, I guess, they're trying to test out where it's going to be during the season,” Allen said.

Polamalu emphasized that the Eagles game was fairly officiated. And Mitchell said, “I don't have any negative opinions. I don't have any positive opinions. I just try to play the game as I'm supposed to.”

If the emphasis carries over into the season, and receivers keep benefiting from calls they once didn't receive, it might be more difficult for those in the secondary to keep from speaking out.

“It's been a little tight, but if that's the way they're calling them and you have to expect it. You got to adjust to it,” Allen said. “Not as far as changing what we've been doing all along, but being more conscious of how they're calling (penalties) and make adjustments.”

Cornerback William Gay learned long ago in the NFL that complaining about calls does no good.

“It's still a football game at the end of the day,” Gay said. “The game of football has flags all the time. We're not going to moan and groan about it.”

Staff writer Mark Kaboly contributed to this report. Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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