The Hits Keep Coming

The Steelers felt singled out by the NFL's crackdown on violent shots—so they dedicated themselves even more deeply to bringing the pain on defense. The result: a beatdown of the cocky Jets, and yet another trip to the Super Bowl Tim Layden


The earth shifted beneath their feet in the third week of October. After a Sunday full of violent hitting across the NFL, the league abruptly took up the worthy and important cause of player safety and began aggressively fining those who delivered blows deemed especially dangerous. It was one of the most significant moments in modern NFL history, certain to alter the path of the game in the long term and to create confusion and bitterness in the present. It shook every team to its marrow, but none more than the Steelers, a franchise built both historically and currently on the underpinnings of hard-nosed, physical football. The team plays in a city, after all, where the headgear of choice at home games is a yellow hard hat.

When the league levied its first set of fines, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was slapped hardest, docked $75,000 for a now infamous Oct. 17 hit on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. He would eventually rack up $100,000 in fines in seven weeks. Harrison and the Steelers felt scapegoated by the harsh enforcement—"It seemed like we were the focal point of the rule," says safety Ryan Clark—but more urgently, they faced a crisis inside their own locker room. They had made themselves great by playing up to the line that separates tough from dirty play. Now that line was being moved.

Mike Tomlin delivered a message to his team that was part warning and part defiance. "Coach said you can't control what the refs are calling, and you can't control what the NFL is trying to do with the rules," recalls cornerback Ike Taylor. "You can control how you play the game, and you've got to fight through this. The refs are in a tough situation right now, but we can't stop playing our style of football."

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Pro Bowl cornerback in the bloody 1960s (when the clothesline tackle was legal), made the point even more forcefully. "He told us to keep playing hard and doing exactly what we've been doing," says defensive end Brett Keisel. "He said we're not going to slow down regardless of whatever else is going on. We're going to play to the whistle."

For nearly a month after the new era dawned, the Steelers struggled. They lost two out of four games (albeit to good opponents: the Saints in New Orleans on Oct. 31 and the Patriots at home on Nov. 14) and survived against the Bills on Nov. 28 only because Stevie Johnson dropped a sure touchdown in overtime. They were treading water. But slowly an attitude emerged from the confusion. "There was no team meeting or anything like that," says nosetackle Casey Hampton. "But we talked a lot about how the new rules were b.s. And you know what our mind-set became? They want to make rules about hitting? We're gonna hit harder."

And here was Hampton on Sunday night, slowly (as befitting a man who weighs something well north of his listed 325 pounds) jogging around the inside of Heinz Field, slapping hands with delirious fans in the wake of a 24--19 AFC Championship Game victory over the Jets that sent Pittsburgh to its record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance, on Feb. 6 against the Packers. It seemed that few of the more than 66,000 fans had left the stadium, the crowd swaying and waving Terrible Towels to the schlocky strains of the Steelers' Super Bowl anthem (Here We Go) and expelling a massive, collective cloud of breath into the 15º night sky.

It can be said that every season has its own dramatic arc. (And even if it does not, players will manufacture one, as Pittsburgh wideout and veteran leader Hines Ward did on Sunday. He told reporters gathered in the winning locker room, "None of you guys gave us a chance," when in fact most of us guys did.) For the Steelers this one included playing the first four games without suspended and disgraced (and to hear it now, chastened) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; losing not one but two offensive tackles (and on Sunday rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a high ankle sprain on Pittsburgh's first drive and might sit out the Super Bowl); and missing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for parts of three games late in the season.

Yet through all the turmoil the Steelers' brutal toughness endured, the epoxy that held a damaged team together. Even as the NFL sought to make its game safer, Pittsburgh found a way to make it no less punishing. "You could say we learned to adjust, a little bit," Clark said on Sunday night. "But we remained physical. People walking out of this place"—he pointed from the locker room to the Heinz turf outside—"still feel like they've been in a football game."

The Jets most certainly did. From last summer's HBO Hard Knocks tour de force to the talk-the-talk, walk-the-walk playoff takedown of the Super Bowl favorite Patriots, New York had overwhelmed the league by force of its—and coach Rex Ryan's—personality. While the Jets did not bait Pittsburgh as they had New England (excepting linebacker Bart Scott's ESPN signoff: "Can't wait!"), they arrived on Sunday riding a wave of bravado. And the Steelers emasculated them.

It started when New York deferred after winning the coin toss. Never mind that Ryan almost always defers. "We took it personally," says 344-pound left guard Chris Kemoeatu. "They had a chance to take the ball, but they put their defense on the field. That's calling us out." The Steelers responded with a punishing 15-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that took more than nine minutes and left the Jets embarrassed, rolled over like a scout team. "The plan was to run the ball," said Kemoeatu. "Set the tone and be physical early. I think we did that."

The entire first half was like a small slice of Steelers history, dark and cold and violent. The Jets, who had run for 106 yards in a 22--17 win over Pittsburgh in Week 15, had a net of one yard on the ground before halftime. Three plays after the two-minute warning in the second quarter, LeBeau sent Taylor on a corner blitz, forcing quarterback Mark Sanchez into a fumble that was recovered by cornerback William Gay, who ran 19 yards for a touchdown.

It was fitting that on the Jets' second play from scrimmage, running back LaDainian Tomlinson was met in the hole by Harrison, who slammed the future Hall of Famer to the ground as if wrestling a steer. "You check back in history on all the great Steelers teams," says Taylor. "They had big, tough defenses. Just think about the second play of the game, there's James Harrison in the Jets' backfield. That's Steelers football."
Harrison, a squat 6-foot (not a chance), 242-pound outside linebacker in the Steelers' 3--4 scheme, has been among the best players in the game for four years. In 2008 he was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, and his production has scarcely declined. Just let him tell you. "I had 100 tackles this year [70 unassisted]," says Harrison. "Third year in a row with [at least] 10 sacks. But that's not something people concentrate on now. It's, James is being fined for this and that." In a culture suddenly (and appropriately) obsessed with the damage that football inflicts, Harrison has become Exhibit A, held up as a big man gone wild.

Roethlisberger's sordid off-season—he faced allegations of sexual assault and was suspended by the league for four games—was a discomforting crisis that tested a proud franchise (and, in the end, demonstrated that leeway is granted by the Steelers in direct proportion to salary and on-field value). Harrison's fine-o-rama was a different issue. His play has always been emblematic of Pittsburgh tradition—tough and fearsome—and now it was costing the team yards and dignity, and Harrison money. Three days before the win over New York, Harrison answered eight minutes' worth of questions about his tumultuous season before suddenly halting queries. "I'm tired of these questions," he told reporters. "Anything about the Jets?"

Back when the controversy was hot, Harrison talked about retiring (and quickly recanted). Alone later in the week before the AFC title game, he said he was heartened by the support of many players, even some opponents: "Josh Cribbs [whom Harrison also leveled in the Massaquoi game] supported me. [Ravens linebacker] Terrell Suggs supported me."

But the most significant backup came in the locker room at Steelers headquarters. "Look, James Harrison didn't need to be told to keep playing the same way," said Ward before the Jets game. "He knows the truth about football: If you play this game and start thinking instead of hitting, you're not going to be the same player. The whole mentality of this franchise is to be physical, to be tough. James knew that, because we all know that. Nothing was going to change."

"This whole process, as it was going on, I watched a lot of other games," says Harrison. "They needed to put somebody out there to [illustrate] the rule. I was the guy. But it was only four or five hits out of my whole season, or out of my whole career, and that's no reason to change the way I play. The guys in this room were behind me. So whatever the league was trying to do, all they did is make me focus even more on doing my job the way I've always done it."

Harrison has been sensational in the postseason. In the 31--24 divisional round win over the Ravens he had three sacks and seven tackles; against New York, another seven tackles, including his mood-setting early stuff on Tomlinson.

The Steelers' defense was less dominant in the second half than in the first on Sunday, allowing the Jets 239 yards in a furious rally that made the game close. But the D was never better than on a goal line stand while protecting a 24--10 fourth-quarter lead. After consecutive incompletions from the one-yard line (the second batted down by linebacker LaMarr Woodley), New York tried to run. Tomlinson was stopped for no gain when Hampton and the middle of the Pittsburgh defense could not be moved off the ball.

When the game ended, the Steelers partied on the floor of the stadium in the requisite championship shirts and hats, except Taylor, who stripped naked from the waist up in the bitter cold. They ran from the field up a long tunnel and into their locker room in the belly of the building. Inside, players chanted, Can't wait! Can't wait! Can't wait! Outside the door Tomlin stood like a preschool teacher counting heads to make sure his team was present for the moments of joy that would precede two weeks of preparation for the Packers. Linebacker James Farrior sprinted up, and Tomlin slammed into him, smacking his back with big hands. Then came Hampton for the same treatment, followed by offensive tackle Jonathan Scott and finally defensive tackle Chris Hoke. Each one crushed, front and back. Even in celebration, the Steelers were hitting hard.