PITTSBURGH -- Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley knew the question was coming, and he didn't seem at all upset that the touchy subject was brought up.
Are the Pittsburgh Steelers being targeted by officials?
"I'll let you be the judge of that," Woodley said with a sly grin after Sunday's convincing 35-3 victory against the Oakland Raiders. "If you just look across the board and what's been happening this year, I will let you answer that one."
As Woodley hinted after Pittsburgh set a franchise record with 163 yards on 14 penalties, the Steelers have their suspicions. The general feeling inside the Steelers' locker room is that it's possible they're being made an example of almost on a weekly basis.
In the new-age NFL where playing punishing defense is becoming increasingly frowned upon, the Steelers (7-3) are the team that most exemplifies that style. The NFL and its most successful franchise have butted heads all season as the league continues to try to pull back the Steel Curtain in the form of heavy fines and penalties.
It was never more clear than Sunday as Pittsburgh pounded the Raiders into submission. A blowout win was clouded by the enormous number of flags showering Heinz Field. Whether it was linebacker James Harrison getting a roughing-the-passer call on a clean play, or safety Ryan Clark wrongfully called for a helmet-to-helmet blow when Clark made contact with the receiver's back, there was no flow to an ugly game dominated by officiating.
In what has become virtually another weekly routine, it's time for the Steelers to await word on possible fines.
"We'll see what happens with those once Wednesday gets here," said Harrison, who has been at the center of the NFL's increased attention to big hits. "The way I see it, I don't think it was a callable flag -- a good, clean hit. I don't know, I guess he felt different.
"We're going to play together no matter what. And when there are a lot of penalties that are going against you, that's going to bring you closer together and you are going to play harder."
The Steelers are off to a stellar start, and it's a shame that fines and penalties have dominated headlines with this year's team. Pittsburgh is playing hard-nosed defense the only way it knows how in a rapidly-changing climate, and it's leaving the Steelers confused at times.
"If you look at the offensive and defensive line, it's helmet-to-helmet [contact] every play," Woodley said. "If that was the case, you might as well throw a flag every time."
It will be the challenge of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to keep the defense focused. The players seemed confused by the bevy of flags being thrown against them.
After the game, I asked Tomlin whether he feels his team has clarity on the way calls such as roughing and personal fouls are being officiated. He refused to elaborate on the subject.
"I'm not going to question the officiating," Tomlin said. "I understand the climate that we’re in from that standpoint. I'm just not going to do it; our guys aren't going to do it. We're going to play football, and we're going to try to play it as fairly as we can, as cleanly as we can."
Here are some other, non-penalty-related observations on Pittsburgh’s win against the Raiders:
Defense gets improved pass rush: Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau did a good job of dialing up better blitzes this week against Oakland. The Steelers sat back last week as quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots carved up their defense. But Pittsburgh was much better at getting to the quarterback against Oakland, recording six sacks.
Wallace is gaining consistency: This continues to be a breakout year for starting receiver Mike Wallace, who scored a touchdown in his third straight game. His 52-yard score was impressive as he showed his speed and zipped by Raiders defenders. Wallace, who is replacing former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, has already set a career high for touchdowns (seven) this season.
"I did all right. I felt like I left a couple things out there," Wallace said.
Ben Roethlisberger gets offense going: Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback took the blame for the offense getting off to a slow start against New England, and responded by leading the Steelers to three touchdown drives in the first half. The Steelers led 21-3 at intermission and cruised the rest of the way. Roethlisberger threw for 275 yards and had four touchdowns (three passing, one running) in one of his better games. But he still wants more.
"It's funny, because if you ask me I felt like we didn't have a good offensive performance," Roethlisberger said. "I felt that we were OK. I told the guys that at the very end. It's a good job of bouncing back and playing well."