Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Upon further review, for the second year in a row, the NFL has passed a rule change that, had it been in place during the previous season, would have helped the Steelers immensely.

Last year, it was the adjustment of the catch rule that would have made Jesse James’ catch against the New England Patriots in their regular season meeting a touchdown that probably would have meant the Steelers would have not only won that game, but locked up home field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Who knows how things would have turned out then?

The same goes for the rule passed this past week at the NFL meetings in Phoenix.

This time, the owners voted 31-1 to allow offensive and defensive pass interference penalties – either called on the field or not – to be subject to review, at least for 2019.

Had that rule been in place in 2018, the Steelers would have had a much better chance of winning in New Orleans in Week 16 – a game they lost, 31-28.

The Saints, of course, benefitted from a pair of questionable pass interference calls against Steelers cornerback Joe Haden that came on fourth-down plays. The Saints, with the help of the penalties, scored touchdowns on each drive.

Had the Steelers won that game, they would have all but clinched a playoff spot. Instead, they lost and finished a half-game behind the Ravens for the division title.

While the Saints certainly benefitted from the calls against Haden, even New Orleans head coach Sean Payton admitted at the coaches’ breakfast Tuesday morning what a big deal those two calls wound up being.

“Those were huge calls for Pittsburgh,” Payton said, noting the Steelers missed the playoffs by a half game.

Of course, Payton’s team also lost the NFC Championship when a pass interference penalty was not called late in the game that would have given them a first down inside the Rams’ 10.

That play, in particular, was the impetus for the league to make the change of adding pass interference calls as something that can be reviewed.

The Steelers initially weren’t in favor of the expansion of replay for any situation. But after some negotiations, they decided to vote for the limited increase in replay.

“You have to acknowledge that there have been plays that stimulated a lot of these discussions, whether it’s what we are talking about here, or whether it was catch or not a catch from a few years ago,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s annually singular plays that stimulate significant discussions that are a catalyst for change.”

  • So, what will the result of adding pass interference penalties to the list o
  • f reviewable plays?

As is often the case when a new rule is proposed, the immediate reaction for some was to predict the demise of the league.

Games will now take forever to play, the critics say.

In this case, however, pass interference replays are unlikely to affect the game in that fashion. In fact, if anything, it might lead to fewer replays.

Because the NFL did not expand the number of replays available to each coach – two per game, three if the coach gets the first two correct – coaches will be more likely to save their challenges.

Instead of doing things such as challenging the spot of the ball or whether a five-yard gain along the sideline was in bounds or not, coaches might want to save their challenges for pass interference plays. After all, the average pass interference penalty is 15 yards downfield.

It’s likely they will want to have challenges in their possession for potential chunk plays such as that.

The other thing we don’t yet know is how judiciously the league’s officials will be when it comes to overturning a call made on the field. Or, just as important, we don’t know how quickly they will be to rule there was a pass interference penalty when one was not called.

The guess here is that officials won’t want to make those calls unless they are egregious.

  • Speaking of reviews, Tomlin confirmed that new defensive assistant Teryl Austin will handle the duties of helping him with replay challenges.

Tomlin has missed his last 14 replay challenges dating back to the playoffs in 2016. Some of that is because the replay challenges have been handled by the league office the past two seasons and Al Riveron, who is in charge of making those calls, hasn’t been quick to overturn the call on the field.

But Tomlin also hasn’t had a coach in the press box whom he trusts to help with replay. Now, apparently, he does.

“We’re talking about a guy who has been a coordinator, a guy who has been at the doorstep of head coaching opportunities,” Tomlin said of Austin. “I expect to utilize his talents in replay and some game circumstances in-game, things of that nature, things he’s been preparing for a number of years because of the jobs that he’s been aspiring to.”

  • It sounds like the Steelers might be done with 2016 first-round draft pick Artie Burns.

With the signing of Steven Nelson to start opposite Joe Haden, Burns isn’t going to get a shot at that position in 2019. And Tomlin isn’t making any special plans to give Burns a chance to play.

“It’s not about giving him another chance,” Tomlin said. “It’s about putting together the very best group that we can put out there, and if that includes giving him another chance, then certainly, but it’s not per se specifically about giving him quote-unquote another chance.”

Here’s guessing the Steelers shop Burns during the draft, hoping to get something in return for the 23-year-old cornerback.

  • Tomlin also said the team’s right tackle position is open after the trade of Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals for a sixth-round pick.

The initial thinking was Matt Feiler, who started 10 games in place of an injured Gilbert in 2018, would get the job. And while he might be the front-runner, Tomlin went out of his way to say 2018 third-round draft pick Chuks Okorafor and former fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins also will be in the mix.

A lot of “draft analysts” have now listed offensive tackle as a need for the Steelers heading into the draft after the trade of Gilbert, but that is most certainly not the case.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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