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Kovacevic: Steelers must sustain fear factor

Friday, Aug. 5, 2011
 

Troy Polamalu isn't about to pull aside some rookie here at St. Vincent College, grit his teeth and grill the kid on how the Steelers' defense instills fear in opponents.

"I don't think it's something that's ever talked about," Polamalu told me before practice the other day. "I think that when people come here ... you just see right away that they don't fit in. Like, we don't have raw cover corners here. I've seen great cover corners in these camps who just didn't make our team."

So, I came back, how does one fit in?

"I just think we play football in its purest form," he said, "and that's hitting and tackling, regardless of what the rules may say."

Polamalu laughed, but this topic isn't shaping up to be a joke this season. Ask me, and there is no more pressing priority for the Steelers in 2011 and beyond than retaining that fear factor within the NFL's new guidelines for hitting.

We're talking about the very foundation of a half-century of football excellence, from the drafting of "Mean" Joe Greene to the toothless snarl of Jack Lambert, the fury of Mel Blount, the dark disposition of Greg Lloyd, the hot-headed rants of Joey Porter and, yeah, even those fans' hoagie sales last year aimed at paying James Harrison's fines.

Is it any wonder the Steelers griped more about Roger Goodell than the other 31 teams combined in advance of the labor agreement, not least of which was their team-wide rejection of the pact yesterday?

They're defending their identity, as I kept hearing all week from some of the defense's hardest hitters.

"The Steelers do have that mystique, but you've got to keep that through your play," said Ryan Clark, the safety and union rep who is by far the loudest of those protesting mouths. "It's very important for teams to know that you can't come across the middle and not be hit, for teams to know you can't run away from James Harrison because he'll seek you out. That's who we are."

As only he can, Clark digressed deftly into a boxing analogy.

"It's kind of like that Mike Tyson mystique. Before Buster Douglas beat him, nobody even wanted to step into the ring with him. But once Tyson lost, then people felt like there was a blueprint. They wanted to get into that ring. That's why you can't let go of what you've got."

He's right. At the veteran level, the hardest hitters must maintain the same approach, even as they adjust away from the head, away from opponents deemed vulnerable. They still need to hit to hurt.

Harrison, of all people, provided the best example late last season. He hated the fines to the point of threatening retirement, but he didn't tone down his aggression even as he picked up no further punishment despite all eyes watching.

Funny thing is, the man won't admit that he or the Steelers changed a thing. Nor that they should.

"That's just our defense," Harrison said. "We're going to play the game within the rules, whatever the changes may be or even if they make any more. We're going to go out and hit people in the mouth. Every year, it's a different thing they're saying you can or can't do. It's no different than any other year."

Hey, whatever works. If Harrison takes a pay-to-play mindset into the game but still keeps the new guidelines in the back of his mind, he'll remain a dangerous — and feared —player. Sounds like it might be workable for all of the team's hardest hitters, actually.

"We've just got to go out there and play," Clark said. "Let them worry about what's legal or not."

The earliest stages of camp have set the tone, judging by coach Mike Tomlin's terrific assessment of one session this week: "Some licks were passed. In some instances, the hits were high technically. In others, we weren't violent enough." Lawrence Timmons leveled Rashard Mendenhall in one drill. Harrison was banging shoulders with rookie running back Baron Batch in another.

The latter might have been one of those silent indoctrinations Polamalu described.

"Oh, we all know as rookies, believe me," said Cam Heyward, the first-round pick and iron-headed defensive end. "If you want to play for this team, you've got to be aggressive. It's almost like a rite of passage: Show no mercy."

When the Steelers do, you can kiss that half-century of excellence goodbye.

Just ask the guy who started it all.

"This 'D' needs to be who they are," said Greene, observing in camp as a special assistant. "This isn't tennis. This isn't golf. It's a rough, tough game. You need to make guys afraid to line up against you. These players will do that, and they'll adjust. You'll see. They just need to think out there."

The new rules

The NFL's new safety guidelines, approved in May, prohibit "forcibly hitting the neck or head area" of any player. They also prohibit hits against a player in a "defenseless posture," which was redefined as the following:

> > A player in the act or just after throwing a pass

> > A receiver attempting to catch a pass or one who has not completed a catch and hasn't had time to protect himself or hasn't clearly become a runner

> > A runner whose forward progress has been stopped

> > A kickoff or punt returner attempting to field a kick in the air

> > A player on the ground at the end of a play

> > A kicker/punter during a return

> > A quarterback any time after a turnover

> > A player who receives a blindside block when the blocker is moving toward his own end-line and approaches the opponent from behind or the side

Source: NFL

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