PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin might be a perfectionist, but he's a realist too.
The Pittsburgh Steelers coach knows penalties are going to happen. He can tolerate mistakes — to a point anyway — and makes no excuses when he sees the flag fly.
It's just that he'd prefer not to see the yellow hankies in flight so often, which at the moment seems to be nearly all the time.
The Steelers (2-2), who have long prided themselves on their discipline, are playing like a team that doesn't have much. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in penalties per game (9.2) and penalty yards per game (86.5) and is on pace to shatter team records in both categories.
"In some instances we have some guys working hard and not necessarily smart," Tomlin said. "Those things usually smooth themselves out as you push through the first quarter of the season."
Maybe, but at this point there's nowhere to go but up heading into Thursday's game at Tennessee (1-4). While penalties were up across the league when the replacement officials were working, they've come back down to earth a bit since the regular referees returned to work.
Just not in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers were flagged nine times for 106 yards in a 16-14 win over Philadelphia last week and were fortunate the repeated miscues didn't send them to their first two-game losing streak in three years.
Personal foul penalties on safeties Ryan Clark and Ryan Mundy gave the Eagles 30 free yards on a third quarter touchdown drive that got Philadelphia back in the game and left guard Willie Colon's holding penalty on the first play of Pittsburgh's final possession — the fourth flag Colon drew on the day — pushed the Steelers all the way back to their 10.
Pittsburgh rallied behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger but the Steelers are well aware they don't have a ton of wiggle room as it is and handing out a football field's worth of penalty yardage a game isn't exactly good for business.
"They're just small mental errors," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "It's a part of football. Sometimes it happens. That's something that we've got to tighten up if we want to be the team we want to be."
Perhaps, but the truth is the Steelers have climbed the ranks of the most penalized teams in the league under Tomlin. Pittsburgh was one of the eight fewest penalized teams in the NFL in each of Bill Cowher's finals three years on the sideline.
Since Tomlin took over in 2007, the trend has reversed. The Steelers have been among the 10 most penalized teams three times over the last five seasons and barring a significant and immediate downturn will make it four out of six this fall.
The flags haven't stopped Pittsburgh from being one of the league's elite teams, but the club's margin for error is slimmer than ever. The Steelers are 0-2 on the road this year, including a 34-31 setback in Oakland last month in which the Raiders used a handful of Pittsburgh infractions to put together a spirited fourth-quarter comeback.
The Steelers insist they're not trying to develop a reputation, but they may have gotten one anyway. Linebacker James Harrison has enjoyed a steady stream of fines over the last three years while Mundy has already been docked $21,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey that knocked Heyward-Bey out cold.
A second fine could be coming if league officials feel the 15-yard penalty Mundy received for slamming into Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin on Sunday wasn't sufficient.
If Harrison can be honest, however, he doesn't think either Mundy or Clark deserved a flag.
"Ryan (Mundy), didn't look like it hit helmet-to-helmet, but the guy made like he was hurt and if it looks like the guy is hurt, let's throw a flag and worry about it later," Harrison said.
The four-time Pro Bowler and former Defensive Player of the Year added he's not sure all teams are being treated equally, saying he frequently sees players from different teams commit similar acts. One player will get fined while the other avoids trouble altogether.
"I just think they need to display or execute the rules evenly across the board," Harrison said.
Cornerback Ike Taylor is a little more diplomatic, saying the referees have "a tough job" and that "life ain't fair" while nose tackle Casey Hampton says it's nearly impossible to avoid certain collisions.
"You try to hit a guy that's moving full speed and see if you're not going to hit him in the head every now and then," Hampton said. "It's just part of this business, something you've got to work on. Not sure how much more you can do."
What the Steelers know they have to do, however, is be on their best behavior. Colon, who switched from right tackle to left guard this season, admits he didn't make it difficult on the refs against the Eagles. He allowed his four holding calls were all pretty blatant and blamed his own poor technique and overaggression for drawing the attention of the umpire.
"I've got to do a better job," Colon said. "If they're targeting me, I've got to give them a reason not to."
Tomlin remains optimistic his team will fall back into the norm and while players like Colon can work on their form, Tomlin will never make his players apologize for playing hard.
"I'd rather say 'whoa' than 'sic'em,'" Tomlin said.
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