The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 29, 2010

ERIC KNOPSNYDER | NFL has eye on Steelers

Eric Knopsnyder

JOHNSTOWN — I’m no conspiracy theorist.

I don’t believe that our government faked the moon landing nor that it is hiding beings that landed in Roswell, N.M. And I believe that sports officials are almost always above reproach.

But after watching the Steelers’ 19-16 overtime victory at Buffalo for a second time, I’m beginning to wonder if there is something to the notion that NFL officials are targeting the team.

Coach Mike Tomlin dismisses any talk about the officiating – and rightfully so, as it wouldn’t help in any way and likely would lead to a hefty fine from the NFL.

The players weren’t quite so quick to quell talk of a league-wide crackdown on the team after setting a franchise record with 163 penalty yards in last week’s 35-3 victory over Oakland. No player was willing to openly criticize the officiating, for fear of incurring Roger Goodell’s wrath, but a few alluded to a general feeling in the locker room that the league was targeting the Black and Gold.

And to a certain extent the league is. After all, linebacker James Harrison has become Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to the NFL’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits. He has been fined $100,000 for his hits this season, and those three plays didn’t draw flags when they happened.

He picked up a very questionable roughing-the-passer call against Oakland and added another one on Sunday for leading with the crown of his helmet on his hit on Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Harrison described it as a “textbook” hit, although that one looked more like the textbook version of what the NFL is trying to eliminate. So, if Goodell is looking to stop the kind of hits that fans love but the players’ association hates because of concussion issues, it’s understandable that officials will focus on physical teams like the Steelers and, specifically, Harrison.

The real problem that emerged against Buffalo was the penalties that officials did not see involving Harrison – mainly the way he and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley were being held by the Bills offensive line.

By watching the CBS broadcast a second time, and concentrating only on play along the lines, I spotted nearly a dozen plays where Buffalo’s offensive lineman could have or should have been called for holding.

The old axiom is that holding could be called on virtually ever play in football, and nobody outside of defensive linemen wants to see that happen.

That’s what makes the other end of the officiating frustrating. The Steelers were whistled for six offensive holding penalties, including four by left guard Chris Kemoeatu, who had his hands full – literally at times – with Buffalo’s Kyle Williams.

Some of the holding calls on Pittsburgh were well-deserved.

Others seemed very difficult to justify.

Tomlin was asked about them.

“Some of the stuff with the holds, I’d have to take a look at the tape in order to have an opinion regarding it,” he said.

Read between the lines and here’s what Tomlin was really saying: “Some of the calls were questionable, but I want to see the game film before I write a check to the NFL.”

And that’s also understandable. Complaining publicly about officiating isn’t good business for NFL coaches. But, behind the scenes, the Steelers must be wondering if all of their big hits have gotten into the heads of more than just their opponents.

Eric Knopsnyder is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat.