September 29, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks for a call in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar

PITTSBURGH (AP) Antonio Brown was giddy. Le'Veon Bell was fired up. Cam Heyward was offering a pointed critique.

Different emotions, same result: the kind of after-the-whistle penalties that have plagued the Pittsburgh Steelers during an uneven 2-2 start.

The Steelers were flagged 13 times for 125 yards in Sunday's confounding 27-24 loss to previously winless Tampa Bay. And while coach Mike Tomlin can live with the miscues that pop up during play, it's the ones like the three personal fouls drawn by three of his team's stars that are maddening.

''Post-play penalties are ridiculous,'' Tomlin said. ''That we have full control.''

At the moment, Pittsburgh is out of control.

The Steelers are drawing 11 flags a game, ranking second to San Francisco for the most in the league. They Steelers drew six 15-yard fouls against the Buccaneers, some of them the kind of immature mistakes that are easily avoidable.

Brown drew a celebration penalty when he used the ball as a prop and went to the ground following his 11-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that tied the game at 10. It was a little more elaborate than his usual scoring rituals and Brown said he didn't know he was breaking the rules.

The Pro Bowler isn't blaming the NFL for taking a hard stance, saying he simply has to cut down on the histrionics.

''Obviously there's excitement,'' he said. ''You want to have some fun but you've got to be smart.''

Brown's score came at the end of a drive in which Bell was flagged for taunting a pair of Buccaneers after a 16-yard run. Bell contends he was doing the kind of trash talking that is commonplace between the lines.

''It happens every game,'' he said.

Maybe, but the dynamic second-year back understands there's no real reason to put yourself in a vulnerable position.

''If I'm not disciplined it's on me,'' he said. ''Everybody else should take the same approach.''

Heyward's penalty may have been the most forgivable. He gave an official an earful following a 3-yard touchdown run by Tampa Bay's Doug Martin that made it 17-17 early in the third quarter. Steelers linebacker Sean Spence appeared to be held during the play, and as the sellout crowd at Heinz Field roared its disapproval Heyward advocated for his teammate.

The fourth-year defensive end copped to cursing at the official and crossing the line.

''There are going to be bad calls, there are times we're going to be upset,'' Heyward said. ''It's just part of the game. If it was perfect, we wouldn't need refs. I went too far. I messed up.''

A sentiment echoed throughout the locker room as the Pittsburgh attempted to regroup following another baffling early season loss to a seemingly overmatched team.

On Sunday it was the Buccaneers, who were coming off a 42-point loss to Atlanta. Last fall it was Oakland, who turned an early 93-yard touchdown run by Terrelle Pryor into a 21-18 win. In 2012 it was road upsets at Oakland and Tennessee. The Steelers missed the postseason by one game last year and two in 2012.

While linebacker Lawrence Timmons stressed ''it's still early'' he knows his team missed an opportunity.

''Nobody ever takes us out of the game. We're always in it,'' he said. ''We've got to do the necessary things to close those close games like the ones yesterday, like the Oakland games, things like that. If we get those games, it will be easier for us to make the playoff push.''

It's a notion Pittsburgh can scuttle if it doesn't clean up its act. The Steelers will get another chance to beat a seemingly hopeless team when they travel to Jacksonville next weekend. Yet a game that looked like a gimme on the schedule appears decidedly more uncertain.

Pittsburgh has mixed flashes of dominance with long stretches of mediocrity in the season's first month. The mixed bag needs to stop soon, and the Steelers know it.

''We just lost to one of the worst NFL teams in our house, we blew the game,'' Brown said. ''We feel embarrassed. We feel ashamed. We've got to do better to minimize those things. Losing at the end of games is unacceptable.''

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