As Ravens await, angry Steelers dodge distractions
PITTSBURGH—The Pittsburgh Steelers checked their tempers for weeks, only to angrily voice their frustration in unison as player after player accused the NFL of targeting them.
They're convinced linebacker James Harrison is being unfairly singled out for fines and penalties. They believe Ben Roethlisberger, who is wearing a protective boot on his sprained right foot, doesn't get the same protection from officials afforded star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
They're also concerned about guard Chris Kemoeatu getting penalized four times for holding penalties in Buffalo. Wide receiver Hines Ward can't believe the league is pushing for an 18-game schedule during a time when teams can barely nurse their players through a 16-game schedule.
All these opinions were expressed, all these voices were raised, before what might be the Steelers' most important game of the season Sunday in Baltimore. What the Steelers don't know is whether all of this fretting, worrying and fuming is distracting them or, conversely, is unifying them.
Win, and the Steelers (8-3) could wind up with a first-round playoff bye. Lose, and they might be headed to the road as a wild-card team, while the Ravens (8-3) enjoy all the perks afforded a division champion.
The Steelers believe that their us-against-the-world stance is bringing them together. But even they don't know what their state of mind will be at gametime for what Ravens coach John Harbaugh calls the NFL's best rivalry by far.
"It's crazy because usually people are talking (in advance) about the physicality of the game and how hard the hits are going to be," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "But people are talking about slowing down because they need their money and don't want to be fined. So, it's kind of taking away from it a little bit."
The Steelers are convinced they've somehow become the NFL team that gets the most policing, and not just because Harrison has been fined $125,000 for four infractions since mid-October. They were flagged for a club-record 163 yards in penalties during a 35-3 win over Oakland on Nov. 21 and another 107 yards as they beat Buffalo 19-16 in overtime on Sunday.
Tight end Heath Miller pointed to the numerous penalties and said, "There were a lot of negative plays (in Buffalo). We were converting third downs on offense and we were able to run the ball, but when you add those plays where you're moving backward, it makes it difficult to score."
"It's affecting everybody that plays defense," said linebacker James Farrior, the Steelers' defensive captain. "We can't just keep sitting here and taking it. Sooner or later, somebody's going to have to say something. We just can't keep quiet the whole time."
The NFL declined comment Wednesday when Harrison, Farrior, Ward and others suggested the league was targeting the Steelers. League executive Ray Anderson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday it's not true.
"I would say that's misguided and, frankly, completely untrue," said Anderson, the executive vice president for football operations. "Every team and every player, hopefully, will have the confidence that, if they play within the rules, we won't have this problem."
Anderson and NFL assistant director of operations Merton Hanks, a former player, are in charge of levying fines.
"We're just going to keep playing the way we always have been playing and, if they fine us, they fine us," Ward said.
Farrior's worry is the ongoing debate about whether Harrison is disregarding the rules with his punishing hits will cost the Steelers not just in the checkbook, but in the standings. He hopes it's not this week, of all weeks.
"It's going to end up costing us a game," he said. "It's going to end up maybe getting him suspended. There's nothing good coming out of this for us."