Every league is protective of its officiating, and understandably so, because accuracy of officiating is fundamental to the sense of the integrity of the game, and thus its credibility and legitimacy. A league defending its own calls, of course, isn’t going to get everybody to agree with the decisions that they make, whether that’s fans, players, or even coaches (as Mike Tomlin disagreed with a flag thrown on Ray-Ray McCloud last year, and on Trai Turner being ejected).
But it’s most often the players themselves who grow frustrated by officiating decisions, and in recent years, among the most scrutinized calls have been roughing the passer penalties. Cameron Heyward still believes he was robbed of half a sack at the end of the season on a bad roughing penalty.
“I got one at the end of the season. It would’ve been my 11th sack”, he explained during his appearance last week on the Pat McAfee Show. “Me and T.J. [Watt] combined on the sack, and [the quarterback]’s coming straight at me, full speed. What am I supposed to do, just let him run over me?”, he asks.
The play in question came in the regular-season finale against the Baltimore Ravens with Tyler Huntley starting in place of an injured Lamar Jackson. It was 2nd-and-6 at the Steelers’ six-yard line at the end of the first half, and Huntley scrambled up the middle, but was brought down for a loss by the dynamic duo. Heyward was flagged for his hit, but Watt got a sack on the next play, and they were held to a field goal.
“I go to make the tackle—it’s unnecessary roughness”, Heyward said. “On a runner. Tyler Huntley was running the ball”. And he let it be known that he’s “talked back plenty of times” to officials, but added, “I’ve learned my lesson over the years”.
He said that he does talk to the officials during the game, and he tries to win them over to start things out, though the tone can change depending on how the calls go. He described Watt as the bad cop to his good job, saying that Watt “goes off on them. I love it though”.
That was one of six flags for Heyward on the season, and not to his amusement. Two were unnecessary roughness penalties, while the others were offside or encroachment penalties. That is actually the most penalties he’s ever had in a season. The only year in which he ever had more than three aside from 2021 was in 2014, with five.
That penalty limited Watt to 22.5 sacks on the season. The half-sack on that play would have allowed him to break the single-season sack record, but instead, he merely tied it, and in doing so helped earn his first Defensive Player of the Year award.