In a season which produced four of the top six passing yardage totals of all-time — 20,682 yards from the right arms of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford alone — the Steelers were left to stand up for the integrity of defensive football. They led the NFL in fewest yards allowed (271.8 per game), points allowed (14.2 per game) and passing yards (171.9 per game). And they did so with inconsistent participation from two of their best players, linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who played together only four times because of various injuries and Harrison’s suspension for an illegal hit against Cleveland.
“We have a saying around here: The standard is the standard,” said veteran defensive lineman Brett Keisel. “We don’t waver much from it. We expect to play well, regardless of who’s out there. That’s just the way it is.”
But as professional football has developed rules designed to protect players from dangerous hits, and subsequently favored the offense, no team in the league has had to monitor and adjust the way it plays more than the Steelers. Harrison’s one-game suspension resulted from his accumulated illegal hits, a development that has occasionally caused him to rage against the NFL. The discussion — what’s legal, what’s not, what’s football and what’s hazardous — has spread throughout the league for the better part of two years. Nowhere has it been more discussed than in Pittsburgh, right in the Steelers’ locker room.
“For a guy like myself that’s a safety, my job is to get the ball away from the wide receiver,” said safety Ryan Mundy, who will start in place of veteran Ryan Clark against the Broncos. “And sometimes, they call these hits so close. They’re like, ‘You didn’t give him a chance to prepare to get hit.’ But that’s ridiculous. My job is to not let him catch the ball. These bang-bang plays, they’re extremely tough as a defender.”
No one is more aware of that than Harrison, the undersized force who went undrafted out of college, was cut four times — three times by the Steelers, once by rival Baltimore — and rose to become the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2008. In 2010, he was fined $75,000 for a pair of hits in the same game against Cleveland. This year, the hit on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was his fifth over a three-year period, resulting in the suspension. At various points, has threatened to retire and railed, in an interview with Men’s Journal, against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.