The League

Doug Farrar
Writer

Doug Farrar

A FootballOutsiders.com staff writer

They're Physical, Not Dirty

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One reason the Steelers have been so remarkably consistent since the early 1970s -- sustained excellence with only occasional rough patches -- is that they know exactly what kind of player they want. Sure, they want the guys who light up the Combine and Pro Day tests, and players like Lynn Swann and Santonio Holmes won't win many street fights. But above all, the Steelers want players who have a mean streak on the field. And I wonder how hypocritical it is for people to bemoan Pittsburgh's violent style of play when NFL Films sells "Greatest Hits" highlights shows, and ESPN sets up their top "Jacked Up!" plays of the week.

The Steeler legacy of toughness actually predates the Steel Curtain era with guys like Bill Saul (who looked like Herman Munster and played like Frankenstein), but it was the Jack Lambert era that really brought it into focus. Lambert, with his evil sneer enhanced by missing front teeth, skirted the edges of fair play throughout his career, but he was also one of the most intelligent defenders of his era. In the 1990s, the Blitzburgh set of linebackers, led by the terrifying Greg Lloyd, won through intimidation.

The current group may be the best of all, given the complexity of the offenses they face. This defense flies around at top speed, manhandling everything in their way, and the legacy of playing just this side of the rules is intact. You can look at Hines Ward's block on Keith Rivers and say that what he did in breaking the rookie linebacker's jaw was wrong, but the replay said otherwise - what Ward did was within the rules. Safety Ryan Clark's hit on Ravens running back Willis McGahee in the AFC Championship game was a shoulder hit with incidental helmet-to-helmet contact.

I will say that I think Pittsburgh's pass rushers can be found too often taking shots below the knees of enemy quarterbacks -- most famously against Carson Palmer in the 2005 playoffs -- but I can't classify the team or the franchise as "dirty". They play fast, they play very physically and aggressively, and they do so within the rules, for the most part. The results speak for themselves.

By Doug Farrar  |  January 29, 2009; 9:29 AM ET  | Category:  Arizona Cardinals , Doug Farrar , Pittsburgh Steelers Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"I think Pittsburgh's pass rushers can be found too often taking shots below the knees of enemy quarterbacks -- most famously against Carson Palmer in the 2005 playoffs"

I don't think one injury four years ago is a fair basis for this type of characterization. If the Steelers were going after QB knees, there would be dozens of injuries not one.

And don't forget, earlier in the 2004 regular season Big Ben was taken down by a knee injury caused by a San Diego lineman. In fact, Ben takes 10 times the punishment of most QBs, but you don't hear him crying about dirty hits even after that Ravens player stuck his helmet in Ben's back well after the pass was thrown. If that had been a Steeler defender he would have gotten a 15 yard penalty and a fine later that week!

Posted by: writinron | January 29, 2009 3:32 PM

In any sport in which physical violence is part and parcel in which it is played, players pondering nano-second decisions based on the preferred guidelines on which the outcome of a particularly ambiguous act tests the judgement of officials, weighing such decisions demands that fractious little time was involved in the ultimate act that warrants a review, let alone ultimate sanctions against the person deemed guilty of probable excessive violence.

Posted by: vicsoir | January 29, 2009 3:35 PM

Concur with commentators, the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game was a blast to watch, two very hard hitting teams that had a war on the field, although the hit on McGahee was firghtening

Posted by: chet_brewer | January 29, 2009 3:54 PM

I would like to see the game played with lesther helmets with no face mask. All those cheap shot artists using the helmet as a spear would have to learn how to block and tackle. All the sports writers that never pass up a chance to smell jocks would be amazed if they knew how the players of fifty years ago played this game.

Posted by: cperrym | January 29, 2009 7:55 PM

More than 35 years ago, when the Steelers won four Superbowls in six years, Steelers Hall-of-Fame middle linebacker Jack Lambert said of quarterbacks, "... they should all wear dresses."

If you want choreography, go to the ballet.

Posted by: dougshugarts | January 30, 2009 1:24 AM

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