If asked to name significant dates in Pittsburgh Steelers history, few fans would likely cite Oct. 17, 2010. But that's the day Steelers football as we know it changed.
The 3-1 Steelers were coming off a bye week and playing their historic rival Cleveland Browns at home. In a matter of seven minutes, Steelers linebacker James Harrison landed two vicious headshot tackles that knocked Browns receivers Josh Cribbs and Mohammed Massaquoi out of the game.
As it would happen, there were several other brutal hits that day across the National Football League, some arguably more vicious than the two Harrison laid down. But the issue of blatant, vicious hits and so-called dirty play would quickly become a Steelers issue -- one that led Harrison and the franchise on a strange journey of heavy fines, name-calling and changes to the NFL rules governing headshots.
Harrison was fined $75,000 for the Oct. 17 hits -- the highest levied that day -- and $120,000 by season's end. In addition, Harrison and his teammates launched a campaign against what they saw as a vendetta against the Steelers defense. In fact, when it came time to approve the most recent collective-bargaining agreement, the Steelers were the only team to vote against it -- by a vote of 78-6, because it left the power to levy fines solely in the hands of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"I think [Goodell has] decided to make himself a major part of this game. I don't know if he had some type of high school dreams or Pop Warner dreams of being an NFL football player, but he's made himself the NFL," safety Ryan Clark told the Associated Press earlier this summer. "We know he doesn't work for us, he doesn't work with us."
So what does this mean for the 2011 Steelers campaign? Are they going to be forced to play a different style of defense? And if so, will that take away their competitive edge?
"We're going to deal with the rules this year the same as we did last year," says linebacker Larry Foote. "I guess we'll have to save a little money for some fines, you know, just put it to the side."
Former safety Mike Logan was a member of the Steelers vaunted defense for six years, winning a Super Bowl ring in 2005. He then watched them as a talk show host on ESPN 1250 until the station changed formats last year.
Logan, who is now a coach and mentor at Pittsburgh's University Prep High School, says he doesn't think the rule changes should affect the Steelers much because the defensive schemes put in place by long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will remain the same. He also thinks the Steelers' aggression, while tempered a bit, will still be running at a high level.
"[The defense] will still be effective because of their personnel," says Logan. "Now James Harrison may not be able to knock people's head off but it will not make him less aggressive."
Although he believes the team was targeted last year, Steelers linebacker James Farrior says the new rules are just a part of the business they'll have "to deal with … the same as every other team."
"[The NFL] keeps saying these aren't new rules, that they're just emphasizing the old rules. So we're just going to have to deal with it when it comes up and hopefully we'll make the right kinds of tackles," Farrior says.
After Oct. 17 last year, the league did choose to emphasize rules already in place, especially when dealing with headshots and hits on defenseless players. But the off-season saw some rule changes -- most of which will make it harder for defenders.
According to NFL rules, a defender is not allowed to lead with any part of his helmet when tackling an offensive player. Also, a defensive player is not allowed to launch, or leave his feet when making a tackle. Previously, just launching head-first was prohibited, but under the new rules, a player cannot leave his feet prior to the tackle. And while rules against hitting a defenseless player have always been in place, the league significantly widened them in the off-season.
For example, a player was never allowed to hit a so-called defenseless player. But the definition of defenseless has been expanded. A defenseless player now includes a kicker or punter on kick returns, a receiver who "has not clearly become a runner" and a quarterback after he throws an interception.
While Harrison wasn't available the day City Paper visited Steelers training camp in Latrobe, he has certainly been vocal about the changes. After hearing about the rule modifications in May, Harrison responded on Twitter: "I'm absolutely sure now after this last rule change that the people making the rules at the NFL are idiots."
Idiotic or not, the Steelers are going to have to find a way to play Steelers defense in an era when traditional Steelers defense is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
"We have to play fast and aggressive, but at the same time we have to make sure we're not hurting the team [with penalties,] because on the field that's 15 yards," Foote says. "We always complain about the rules, but I do think the league is just trying to protect guys.
"Hopefully, though, it doesn't hurt the integrity of the game."