Despite fines, flags, Steelers say hits won't stop
James Harrison and the Pittsburgh Steelers thrive on physicality in a league that is forcefully penalizing, fining and rebuking players who cross an imaginary line that appears to get redefined from week to week.
The Steelers and their three-time Pro Bowl linebacker admittedly are confused about how to play in this new, no-dangerous-hits-allowed NFL. Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert once complained that quarterbacks should be fitted for skirts as the league moved to protect them, and the rules back in the 1970s were far less restrictive than today's.
The Steelers (7-3) never have been penalized more than they were during their 35-3 rout of the Raiders on Sunday - 163 yards' worth of flags that once fluttered on four consecutive plays. Nine more penalty yards than in any game in their 77-year history. Six penalties alone for personal fouls.
So do the Steelers react? Do they pull up and not inflict a hit that might draw a fine or a penalty, possibly allowing a player to get loose for yardage? Or do they keep on hitting, not worrying whether they cross the line or wind up with a substantial deduction in their next paycheck?
The Steelers say the answer is easy. If it costs them more flags, more fines, that's just part of doing business their way. As long as it doesn't cost them a championship.
''If you start letting penalties affect the way we play, we're not going to be the aggressive team that we've always been,'' linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.
''When we play like that, it brings more excitement to the game,'' center Maurkice Pouncey said. ''The fans love it, the coaches love it. We're going at it. Let's play football.''
The Steelers have the NFL's best defense over the last four seasons, a span in which they've allowed 600 yards fewer than any other team. So while the rules are changing, they're reluctant to stop being a team that doesn't brag about being intimidating, but tries to be exactly that.
Even if they're not exactly sure how they're supposed to play in this fines-are-flying league in which Harrison has been docked $80,000 for hits that weren't penalized and Woodley drew a $12,500 fine last week for a hit on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Harrison was called to the NFL office in New York recently for a detailed explanation about how rules designed to protect players from injury are being enforced. But he's still unclear.
There was speculation that getting fined a total of $100,000, or one-seventh of his base pay, might cause Harrison to quit playing with the edge that's always evident in his game. That wasn't apparent when he had five tackles, two sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and a personal foul penalty against Oakland.
''I'm not one of the guys in the black and white stripe suits, so I'm just playing ball,'' Harrison said. ''I came back (after getting fined) and started playing the way I've been taught to play. I'm not worrying about the calls.''
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was outspoken about the NFL's toughened stance against punishing hits, saying commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office have too much power to impose fines. He was less talkative about the issue Sunday, perhaps to avoid getting fined himself. But he did promise the Steelers won't change.
''We can play the way we play,'' he said. ''I don't imagine us changing our style.''
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau also doesn't want his players letting up or pulling up, so the Steelers' philosophy for the rest of the season is to hit now, worry later. They're unwilling to alter their personality or identity, so that means playing to the whistle.
That is, if there is one. Referee Tony Corrente blew his whistle so much Sunday, he lost it on the field and had to borrow a replacement from a colleague. No surprise to safety Ryan Clark, who said the officials are as confused as the players.
Any improperly placed hand, any misdirected helmet now can bring punishment, but the problem is sorting out what's happening at a very high rate of speed in a moment's time.
''The referees have to be on edge. They're at the point now where it's throw the flag first, and figure it out later,'' Clark said. ''If we feel like we're making clean plays, we just have to keep playing that way.''
On Sunday, the Steelers appeared to be worried more about bouncing back from an embarrassing 39-26 loss to New England than they were all the yellow that fluttered on Heinz Field's chewed-up grass for three-plus hours. Of course, that's easy to do when a game isn't competitive.
''We know what's going on around the league now. We have to do our best to play legally, but also to play to the best of our ability,'' Clark said. ''We're an aggressive defense, though. We just have to keep playing.''