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Old 12-05-2010, 08:33 AM   #1
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Default Steelers face Ravens with much at stake

Steelers face Ravens with much at stake
By Scott Brown
Sunday, December 5, 2010

More may be at stake tonight at M&T Bank Stadium than just first place in the AFC North.

That is because a nationally televised contest between the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers could also offer a portal into how NFL policing will affect games in the coming years.

Those who decry commissioner Roger Goodell's crackdown on unnecessary roughness will watch officials as closely as officials monitor the players.

To them, the latitude allowed between two teams as associated with defense and teeth-rattling hits as any in the NFL may be just as significant as the outcome.

"I'll say this much: I think it's a brand of football people appreciate," Steelers president Art Rooney II said of rugged defense. "Whether any of that is a referendum, probably somebody else has to make that call."

An unofficial referendum on the NFL's handling of player safety took place in the Steelers' locker room last week.

Players lashed out after outside linebacker James Harrison was fined a fourth time this season for unnecessary roughness.

They found a somewhat unlikely ally during Steelers-Ravens week, as Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said some of the penalties that have been called on defensive players are "stupid."

Amid the furor that the latest Harrison fine generated, the league seemed as determined as ever to bring players into compliance with rules that it said will ultimately make the game safer and better.

"What we know from hearing some of the feedback from players and coaches is that we need to continue driving home the need to be educated about what the rules really are and what they say and what the parameters are," NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson said last Thursday.

Reflecting the divide between the Steelers and the NFL on a highly sensitive issue is what wide receiver Hines Ward said the same day Anderson stressed the need for better awareness of the rules.

"When one man's getting fined, you're picking on everybody, so it's not them singling out James (Harrison)," Ward said. "You're picking on this whole organization because we're all affected by it."

Owners approved change to rule

The NFL and Harrison, the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, have been on a collision course since last February.

At the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, the league's competition committee met to discuss rule changes for the 2010 season.

Among the proposals it presented to the owners in March, following discussions with team executives, coaches, players and referees, was a more inclusive rule in regard to unnecessary roughness.

It added protection from hits to the head for players that are in a defenseless position after making a catch.

Owners unanimously voted (32-0) for the change.

Its passage did not register much more than a blip at the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla. And it did not garner nearly the attention as the format change to postseason overtime games, a rule that was passed, 28-4, by owners, while many of the coaches were playing in a golf outing.

The expansion of the unnecessary roughness rule stayed under the radar until Oct. 17.

But after three helmet-to-helmet hits on receivers, including one by Harrison, the league started enforcing the rule with vigilance.

That led to criticism that it has gone too far to protect players in a game predicated on violence.

But, Anderson said, teams had months to prepare their coaches and players for additions to the unnecessary roughness rule.

"It certainly isn't a new message," Anderson said. "Every team has all of those (educational) tapes, all those videos and had all the advance warning. It's nothing new to anybody."

Steelers linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior said the new rules regarding unnecessary roughness were a point of emphasis when referees met with players during training camp in August at St. Vincent College.

"We were clear with that, thought we had a good understanding of that," Farrior said, "but now it's evolved into a whole different monster."

The line between a legal and illegal hit, Farrior said, has become more blurred than ever when it comes to quarterbacks.

"You couldn't hit him in the head. You couldn't hit him in the legs," Farrior said of quarterbacks. "And now they're saying you can't hit him at all with your helmet. You can't hit him in the chest, so we're kind of confused. Where are you supposed to hit him?"

NFL 'happy' to clarify

Anderson said the NFL does everything it can to answer that question and any others when it comes to unnecessary roughness.

"We've had some clubs who have called and asked for officiating supervisors who have come and really gotten into the nitty gritty of what the rules are," he said. "And we were happy to go out and help with that education. We will do that with any team that would like additional help in trying to understand and educate their players and coaches about the rules."

Rooney said he is open to the idea, though he seems to favor more discussions on the rules after the season is over.

"I feel like our coaches, Mike (Tomlin) in particular, has had enough feedback that's he's able to communicate these things to our players, so I'm not sure at this point in time that it's something we need to do," Rooney said. "But if we decide it's something that could be helpful, it's something that could happen."

The math does not always favor those who think the NFL has it in for the Steelers.

The Steelers are tied for 10th in the NFL for penalties (6.5 per game). And they are one of 19 teams that average six-plus penalties a game.

Two things, when it comes to penalties, contributed to raw emotion bubbling last week in the Steelers' locker room.

Harrison and his teammates have long contended that the three-time Pro Bowler gets held much more frequently than it is called.

Among a group of action photos that were in plain view at Steelers' headquarters last week: a shot of Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell with a fistful of Harrison's jersey.

In the same game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was bent backward after throwing a pass, but the play did not result in a flag or any fines.

"They twisted our quarterback up after the whistle was blown and everything else," Harrison said. "If that had been (Indianapolis') Peyton Manning or (New England's) Tom Brady, they might have suspended that guy."

Such inflammatory talk had mostly quieted by Friday. That is partly because Tomlin told his players not to discuss the hot-button issue, to stay focused on the game that will give the Steelers or Ravens pole position in the AFC North.

Farrior, for one, is taking a pragmatic approach to the NFL's crackdown on unnecessary roughness.

"We've got to adjust or it's going to hurt us," Farrior said. "They're the boss. They make the rules."

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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