Kovacevic: Atrocious refs can’t absolve Steelers


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T.J. Watt complains to the officials while the Chargers' Phillip Rivers applauds Sunday night at Heinz Field. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The officiating was awful. It was atrocious.

Can't take the Steelers' word for that, of course, since they clearly were sworn to silence on the subject by Mike Tomlin, this after the insufferably incompetent work of referee Bill Vinovich's crew contributed almost as much as the Chargers themselves to a 33-30 loss Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Really, I tried to squeeze something, anything from them about it ...

... and no one came close to biting. Orders are orders. I get it. I also got Tomlin's gist when he closed his press conference with, "I'm going to keep my mouth shut. I'm going to do that because I send enough money to New York."

Which is fine. I can take care of criticizing the officiating. Not just with adjectives, either. According to a rapid-fire, overnight film study by our Chris Carter, there were 11 total incorrect calls, including those blown and missed. Nine of those benefited the Chargers, two the Steelers.

That's embarrassing. Not because it involves favoritism -- save that silliness for the lowest levels of social media and talk shows -- but because it's just plain unprofessional.


In at least three cases, it was absolute butchery. In chronological order:

1. The already-infamous false start.

It was seen by the entirety of the football world, including a national NBC audience and every solitary soul among the 61,069 inside the big mustard bowl ... except by down judge Phil McKinnely, the crew's most experienced official working his 111th NFL game.

Watch Sam Tevi, the Chargers' nobody of a right tackle, being given carte blanche to take two full steps backward before the snap without being flagged ...

... followed by Phillip Rivers bombing for Travis Benjamin from 46 yards for a touchdown that shouldn't have come to counting.

Watt went berserk. Tomlin did, too. And the crowd might have topped them both, booing with a sustained fury unheard in this place in quite some time.

"Watch the video," was all Watt would tell me.

"It's unfortunate," was as far as Tomlin would go.

But it actually was much worse than that, as several Steelers told me, in that Tevi was allowed to jump back all night long. Including the play right before that touchdown and the Chargers' very last snap from scrimmage leading to their winning field goal.

It was stunning to see at the highest level of the sport. Meaning that this was allowed to continue.

"I've never seen anything like that," one veteran told me. "You can't imagine what kind of an advantage it is for an offensive lineman to be allowed to do that without getting a penalty. It's not just the one play. That happens. But the whole game? Man, that's crazy."

2. The block in the back.

Again, this was witnessed by pretty everyone not wearing stripes.

Stay with the top of the screen to follow Brian Allen off a gunner formation, then right through to getting splattered on his face ...

... by the right hand of the Chargers' Rayshawn Jenkins. Which is as illegal as it is obvious, upon closer inspection:

"I was definitely blocked from behind," Allen told me after all the predictable prefacing about how the officials weren't why the Steelers lost. "I felt something on my back. I'm still not sure what it was, but I went down because I got blocked. Me and DHB had that play covered. I know that."

Darrius Heyward-Bey is the other gunner, and he overshot Desmond King, but there's nothing odd about that. If the first guy on punt coverage makes the tackle, it's a bonus. His role is more about containing and directing, which he does. The killer is the block.

No, wait, the killer is having all these officials watching the same part of the play -- the ball arriving in King's arms -- and all that focus not resulting in a flag in that very area.

3. The botched name heard 'round the world.

Joe Haden was not offside when Los Angeles' Michael Badgley lined up for the first of three attempts he'd get to kick the winning field goal.

It sure looks like Bud Dupree was, and Watt might have been, too. Or they committed neutral-zone infractions. But we've ripped through every frame available, and Haden wasn't guilty of either. As he'd state afterward: "When you get a good jump on the ball, it looks like it’s offside. Sometimes, they’ll just call it. But it is what it is."

Sorry, no, that's letting them off easy. Because the call was made against Haden, the most obvious rusher in the equation, and thus, the call was every bit as wrong as all the rest. They looked at Haden and called him offside. He wasn't. That's wrong, and that's the end of that discussion.

The Steelers were conclusively offside on the next two attempts, but that shouldn't have mattered. The game should have gone to overtime.

Or, at the least, if Haden were to be incorrectly called offside, then Los Angeles tight end Sean Culkin, No. 80 on that same side, should have been called for holding:

Penalties would have offset, and there would have been a re-kick rather than moving the ball 5 yards closer.

Or, if this happened to be some superlative crew, maybe someone would have spied the Chargers' long-snapper, Mike Windt, repeatedly twisting the ball, which also is illegal. This was on the second kick and second offside call:

That prompted this tweet from Joe Schobert, a linebacker for the Browns:

As one veteran told me without sharing his name because he, like his coach had no wish to send money to NFL headquarters, "The officiating was just a joke. I'm not saying it's why we lost. We had things we could've done better. But it was still a joke."

Both things can be true, though.


I'll cite three more cases now, but they'll all be performance-based pointed squarely at the Steelers. In descending priority order this time:

3. Get the damned ball.

This might or might not be fair, because the defense blitzed, bull-rushed and did a lot right in spite of Rivers' lightning-like release, and there were so, so many chances at quality chaos ... but still no takeaways.

This collision between Haden and Sean Davis robbed the former of an interception and, most unfortunately, handed the Chargers a touchdown, as if they needed more gifts:

Call it blameless. Or, as Davis put it, "You can't be mad." And yet, Davis spent the better part of the evening -- and his young NFL career, for that matter -- seeking out hits where tackles would suffice, and that's starting to feel like part of the takeaway problem. If the safeties aren't going for picks, the trend will need a lot of other help reversing.

That's now zero takeaways since the Carolina rout. For the season, the turnover ratio is minus-8, tied for fifth-worst in the NFL.

"As a defense, we're not getting the job done," Cam Heyward groused as only he can. "We want to create an atmosphere where turnovers and sacks go hand in hand, and we're not getting them."

Rivers was hit nine times but sacked only twice. Rivers had five passes defended but none picked. One gets the picture.

2. It's OK to adjust.

Why was Keenan Allen, the Chargers' top-target receiver, allowed to run wild for 14 catches, 148 yards and a touchdown ... against inside linebackers?

Yeah, that'd carry a column and a half on an ordinary day. It was an indefensible defensive scheme, so much so that it sure sounded like it was hard for Los Angeles' people to stifle laughter on it.

"I thought Keenan won his one-on-ones, and he got open," Anthony Lynn, the head coach, said. "We just took advantage of the matchup."


"They really like to match everything and zone everything up," Rivers said. "If Keenan is a No. 3, he's going to get matched with a linebacker. ... So, it was just a lot of high-percentage stuff to him, and then a handful of chunk plays. I don't know that we anticipated this."


And when asked if the Steelers ever adjusted to this shortcoming visible to everyone in the stadium, Rivers diplomatically replied, "I think they kind of stuck with it. That's what this team does: They stick with what they do."

Oh, all the ouches.

I mean, I loved L.J. Fort's overall showing, with a team-high 12 tackles and all the hot pursuit. But neither he nor anyone else with a jersey in the 50s should be dropping back anywhere near this much. It's ... well, laughable.

1. Finish.

That's two second-half leads frittered away in as many weeks, including the seven-point lead last Sunday in Denver. As much as it's natural to seek out a scapegoat here or there or even the league office, collapses of this scope in the NFL are going to be a collective shortcoming 100 times out of 100.

Worded another way, a lot has to go wrong. And a lot did.

"Gotta win those," Tomlin would say. "We didn't."

Nope. The other guys did, regardless of all the unwitting help.


[caption id="attachment_730896" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers vs. Chargers, Heinz Field, Dec. 2, 2018 - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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