If there is anything that we have learned about the Pittsburgh Steelers during their five-game win streak that can be their Achilles heel to slip on fall tomorrow, it would probably be their tendency to beat themselves with penalties this year. Not just a high number of penalties, but truly untimely ones.
While they have been able to escape the worst effects of those penalties over the course of the past five games, during which they have won all of their games, it should go without saying that penalties have played a role in most of their losses this season, including in the last game they lost, to the Cowboys, and in the loss before that, to the Ravens.
Take just their third drive of that game. After completing a 15-yard pass, the offense was hit with a delay of game. So on first and 15, they get the penalty yardage back with a six-yard completion. The second-down play was preceded by a false start that made it 14 yards to go. After a 10-yard pass, it was third and four, despite the fact that they had gained 16 total yards on first and second down. The third-down attempt failed and they punted.
Two drives later, Le’Veon Bell was flagged for a facemask penalty on first down that set up first and 25. They didn’t move the chains on that drive. They somehow prevented a score on the subsequent defensive drive, however, in spite of a facemask penalty, illegal use of hands, and then a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt. But don’t count on avoiding points on another drive like that again.
On a later drive, a false start made third and two a third and seven. Incomplete pass, and another punt. On the subsequent defensive drive, the field goal blocking unit was flagged for an illegal formation on fourth and 20 from the 36, turning a 54-yard attempt into a 49-yard attempt.
The Steelers had 13 penalties in that game for 99 yards, and the truth is that they actually escaped with a lot less damage than they could have taken because of them. Now, the Cowboys did a much better job of taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s infractions, but in this rematch with the Ravens, with the division title ostensibly on the line, they had better mitigate the risks of beating themselves by playing penalty-free football.
Over the course of their winning streak, whenever the Steelers have been able to play penalty-free football, they have had consistency and efficiency on offense, defense, and even special teams. But penalties have too often been a factor—we saw its impact in the first half of Sunday’s game—which has made games closer than they should be.
Playing penalty-free will be important tomorrow, but it will be even more important in the postseason. But, of course, before the team can start working about the playoffs, they have to make sure they are going to be playing beyond New Year’s Day. And that comes down to winning on Christmas.