Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote celebrates after a 24-19 win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011. The Steelers advance to the Super Bowl to face the Green Bay Packers. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
With two scary hits on a single Sunday -- and with the fines, attention and acrimony that followed -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison became the symbol of a season in which the NFL tried to make clear what is and isn't the right way to tackle.
Heading into next weekend's Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers view themselves simply as a hard-nosed bunch, the rightful scions of the Steel Curtain of yesteryear.
Others might use another word: dirty.
"To be honest with you, I really don't care," cornerback Ike Taylor said.
"This ain't flag football. So, of course, some collisions are going to occur, some more serious than others," Taylor explained. "Hopefully when guys do get hit, you would like for guys at least to get up. Whether they get up slow or fast, people would like for a guy to get up on his own. A lot of times that don't happen. But that's all a part of the game."
It was Taylor who head-butted Baltimore Ravens receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh early in Pittsburgh's 31-24 playoff victory. Perhaps it was purely a coincidence that Houshmandzadeh dropped a key pass late in that game.
"Coach always says, 'Be the first one to throw the punch.' Meaning: 'Be the first one to hit,"' Taylor said this week. "Let them know what they're going to get for 60 minutes."
When Pittsburgh beat the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC championship game, Harrison landed hard on Mark Sanchez, even though the quarterback did one of those "Don't hit me!" feet-first slides on a scramble. On the very next play, linebacker James Farrior hit running back Shonn Greene facemask-to-facemask.
Back on Oct. 17, the day helmet-to-helmet and other improper tackling really came to the fore, Harrison sidelined two Cleveland Browns with jarring hits that resulted in head injuries.
His weren't the only frightening shots that day, and he wasn't the only player fined by the league. But Harrison's personal total of fines this season was more than what the entire Packers team was docked, based on a review of Associated Press reports on fines levied against players for on-field actions. And he complained about it.
Harrison spoke about retiring, met with Commissioner Roger Goodell and eventually had his fines reduced because the league determined the linebacker adjusted his techniques to play within the rules.
"It's starting to look like: 'It's OK to cheat, it's OK to fight, but if you hit somebody too hard, we're going to fine you a whole bunch,"' Harrison said last month. "Maybe it's because I play for the Steelers. Who knows?"
Such attention is not limited to Pittsburgh's defense.
Receiver Hines Ward, for example, has his own reputation, based in part on a hit that broke an opponent's jaw during the 2008 season and led to a change in rules governing blocking.
"Our guys, I think, called him 'the toughest guy in the league -- when nobody's looking.' That's the mentality," Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said before the conference title game. "And again, that works for them. He's kind of the spark that gets them going."
Against Baltimore two weeks ago, Pittsburgh offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu was penalized for jumping into the pile and spearing an opponent with his helmet after the go-ahead touchdown play was long over, resulting in a penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff.
"We're not 'dirty,' we're 'physical,"' reserve defensive lineman Nick Eason said. "I don't think any of our guys play dirty. Football is a violent game played by violent men. I believe our team, we play violent, we play very physical, but I don't think we play dirty."
In what is expected by many to be a close, defense-dominated Super Bowl -- linebacker Clay Matthews and the rest of the Packers allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL this season -- a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness might make the difference.
So might a hit that knocks out a quarterback: Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers got two concussions this season (and denied he got another on the helmet-rattling hit in the NFC championship game that earned Chicago Bears defensive lineman Julius Peppers a $10,000 fine); Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger missed time last season with a head injury.
As one would expect, the Packers weren't exactly eager to provide frank, direct answers to questions about whether the Steelers' defense plays up to the edge of proper conduct -- and possibly over that edge.
After all, there's no reason to get any opponent riled up at this stage (unless you're Jets coach Rex Ryan or one of his players) or to acknowledge if you're intimidated by an opponent.
About the most revelatory statement came from Packers receiver Greg Jennings, when asked about the Steelers' propensity for big hits: "They're a team that really tries to get after you physically. We understand that."
It's a tradition that dates to the 1970s, when the Steelers won four of their six Super Bowls. "That's the way we played, and that's the way they play now," said Rocky Bleier, a running back on those title teams decades ago.
"It is necessary to understand the impact of concussions and head injuries and how it affects players. And what the league is doing is important. But you get labeled. ... You start to look at those guys differently, I guess," Bleier said. "But it is their job to hit harder than others. If you can do it and survive, that is what the fans want and what the team wants. They are not looking to take you out of the game or hurt you. They want to beat you."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York, AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, N.J., and David Ginsburg in Baltimore, and AP freelance writer Chris Adamski in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.