Steelers A Big Hit

Published 12:59 am Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ryan Clark levels Willis McGahee and Wes Welker.

Hines Ward breaks Keith Rivers’ jaw.

James Farrior stacks up Derrick Ward.

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The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t deliberately try to injure opposing players. It’s just that it happens sometimes when a team is taught to hit only two ways: hard and harder.

The Steelers are as physical as it gets in the NFL, and the Arizona Cardinals understand they must be prepared to match that hit-or-be-hit mentality if they want to win the Super Bowl. The Ravens-Steelers AFC championship game might have been the NFL’s most punishing all season, and the Cardinals know what’s ahead.

Let’s get physical, indeed.

‘‘They’re definitely different,’’ Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said Wednesday. ‘‘They fly around to the ball and they play with a passion, and that’s a beautiful thing when you see a team play with a lot of passion. … You admire stuff like that, seeing people coming down, making big hits and changing the game.’’

Playing with toughness and an edge didn’t begin in Pittsburgh with the Bill Cowher or Chuck Noll eras, either. The Steelers teams of coach Buddy Parker were rugged, hard-hitting and nasty in the late 1950s and early 1960s, too, although they didn’t win like their predecessors did.

The Steelers transformed physical play into an art form during the Steel Curtain days, an image personified by Jack Lambert’s body-slam hits, Joe Greene’s meanness, Mike Webster’s blocking and Mel Blount’s punishment of wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.

‘‘The way they ran the ball in the 1970s, the way they played defense, you had to be physical,’’ cornerback Deshea Townsend said. ‘‘Pittsburgh, it’s a rough city. It’s a tough city. A lot of hard-nosed people live in that city, so you have to be that type of team to fit in there.’’

Cardinals wide receiver-returner Steve Breaston grew up in Pittsburgh and was educated at length about those Steelers teams. He plays a skill position, yet he has always tried to make his family proud by playing with toughness, too.

‘‘The football there is smashmouth and a real physical style. The Steelers, that defines them right there,’’ Breaston said. ‘‘Look at their linebackers, secondary, all the way through. They’re all making plays, getting to the quarterback. You see (Troy) Polamalu flying around the field, that’s Pittsburgh. They make plays. You have to match it or it’s going to wear on you, wear you down.’’

Steelers linebacker James Farrior learned that, too, after moving from the Jets to the Steelers in 2002. He was amazed at how fans recount big hits months after they occurred, and when Pittsburghers are born, ‘‘You come out waving a Terrible Towel in your hand.’’

After cornerback William Gay was drafted from Louisville last year, his uncle reached him seconds after he was picked and yelled, ‘‘You got to start hitting now!’’

‘‘That perception’s out there about the Steelers,’’ Gay said. ‘‘It goes with who they pick. I mean everybody who plays is physical, but you’ve got certain guys that go out there and put their bodies on the line. They pick their guys well and you know we put our bodies on the line for each other. That’s why we call ourselves the band of brothers.’’

In Pittsburgh, the hitting isn’t restricted to the defense. One of the Steelers’ hardest hits all season was by wide receiver Limas Sweed on Baltimore’s Corey Ivy in the AFC championship game.

Ward has spent his 11-year career redefining the way wide receivers approach the physical aspect of the game. He blocks like a smallish linebacker, as dedicated to creating running room for a ball carrier as he is to gaining a few extra yards on a pass catch.

After a blindside block by Ward ended Bengals rookie Rivers’ season, Ward said several opposing defensive backs intentionally avoided contact with him the next few weeks, yelling to him, ‘‘You’re not breaking my jaw!’’

While it’s difficult to intimidate a fellow NFL player — this isn’t high school ball — several Steelers players can recall games shifting in momentum following an exceptionally hard hit.

‘‘We try to play football the way it is meant to be played,’’ defensive end Aaron Smith said. ‘‘It’s a tradition when you come in here. Since I got here, a few teams we played have taken it to us, but I don’t know if I’ve come off the field and felt like we got outhit — outplayed, but not outhit.’’

Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith recalls seeing an inordinate number of Steelers hits replayed on the NFL highlights show this season. He liked every one of them.

‘‘I admire defenses like that. I like to see quarterbacks getting hit. I like to see running backs getting hit. I’m a defensive-minded person and, any defense that does that, I love to see it,’’ he said. ‘‘I thrive off that. That motivates me.’’

According to Smith, the Cardinals have become a much more physical team since the arrival of coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Steelers offensive coordinator who brought Pittsburgh’s mindset with him, and strength coach John Lott.

Dansby likes how the Cardinals pushed around the Eagles, the one team this season that punished the Steelers like no other, sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times and manhandling them at the line of scrimmage.

‘‘That’s the film we’ve been watching,’’ Dansby said. ‘‘We saw how Philly attacked them with their offense and it was amazing. It was an amazing sight. They came in and did what they wanted to do.’’

Then the Cardinals went out and beat the team that beat up the Steelers. That makes Smith confident they can stand up to the team few push around.

‘‘I want to be smacked in the mouth in that game — any time I’ve been smacked in the mouth, it’s never been good for the person on the other end,’’ Smith said. ‘‘If you’re looking for something, I’m going to give it to you. I’m going to tell you the truth, no exaggeration — (we) just might be some of the most physical guys in the NFL. We’re mean out there. Nobody messes with us.’’