Green Bay Packers Tramon Williams, left, Nick Barnett and Charles Woodson tackle PIttsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall during their Dec. 20, 2009 game at Heinz Field in PIttsburgh. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
Going back to former coach Bill Cowher’s teams in the 1990s, and really to their “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers year-in and year-out carry the reputation among NFL lifers as one of the toughest and most physical teams in a tough and physical league.
It’s become the permanent identity of an elite franchise that’s going for its third Super Bowl title in the last six years. And it’s justified regarding this year’s Steelers, according to Mike Holmgren, the former Green Bay Packers coach who just finished his first season as president of the Steelers’ AFC North Division-rival Cleveland Browns.
“Physically, yeah, they get after it pretty good,” Holmgren said. “And they tackle. It’s a physical group. Now Green Bay strikes me — we didn’t play the Packers, we played them preseason — they strike me as the same type of team. They tackle, and they’re good at creating turnovers.”
Meeting and winning that physical challenge, then, will be paramount for the Packers in their matchup against the Steelers in the Super Bowl next week.
Offensively, the Packers are a passing team, and the Steelers have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, so it’s hard to see the Packers winning there. But if the Packers prove unable to push around the Steelers’ front seven, they at least must handle the pass rush.
Defensively, though, the Packers think they can match any team in the NFL in tough, physical play. Their 3-4 scheme includes a personnel group they use against run-oriented teams on early downs and that features three huge defensive linemen — in essence three nose tackles in B.J. Raji (337 pounds), Ryan Pickett (340 pounds) and Howard Green (340 pounds).
“We love it, we get after people pretty good,” Pickett said of that grouping. “Pittsburgh deserves it, and that’s what we’re looking for, a reputation for rough, tough guys.”
The Packers also have two midseason replacements in their starting lineup in linebacker Desmond Bishop and safety Charlie Peprah who, though not as fast as the players they replaced (Nick Barnett and rookie Morgan Burnett), are more physical in defending the run, where the Steelers try to establish physical superiority.
“The physical part of the game, like a big hit on a hard tackle, is definitely overrated,” Bishop said, “but I can definitely send a message to them, and for us, that we don’t care how tough (they are), we’re going to bring it.”
The Steelers’ physical brand of football is an organizational commitment from the top down and includes an emphasis on running the ball well on the bad fields of the Pittsburgh winter.
The Steelers covet power halfbacks — 250-pound Jerome Bettis was their primary back from 1994 to 2004, and after going with 212-pound Willie Parker for three seasons, they’ve had 225-pound Rashard Mendenhall the last three years. One of their backups this season is Isaac Redman, a 230-pound rookie.
They also emphasize run blockers on the line and last spring became one of only five teams in the past decade to draft a center in the first round when they took Maurice Pouncey at No. 18 overall.
“I don’t think any team is going to run the ball without priding themselves on being physical,” Raji said.
But the Steelers’ physical reputation on offense is enhanced by other positions as well, notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward.
Quarterback is an unusual position to contribute to a team’s physical identity, but Roethlisberger does it because he’s so big (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) and strong for the position. One of his greatest assets is keeping plays alive by shrugging off sacks that bring down most quarterbacks.
“(The physical style) shows up mainly in their blocking, you see a receiver downfield staying with his block,” Bishop said. “And you see Ben Roethlisberger fearless in the pocket.”
Ward, unlike Roethlisberger, has only OK size for his position (6-0, 205) but is a physical presence because of his ruthless mentality as a blocker. Ward is renowned — notorious in some circles — for aggressively blocking defensive backs up to the whistle and for crack-back type blocks in the open field against defensive backs and linebackers. In 2008, he ended Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers’ season with a jaw-breaking block.
Ward certainly carries a reputation around the NFL. A poll of players conducted by Sports Illustrated in 2009 chose him the league’s dirtiest player with 11.4 percent of the vote. Leading up to the AFC championship last week, New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Ward “dirty,” and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine ridiculed Ward by saying his players call him “the toughest guy in the league when nobody’s looking.”
Of the several Packers defensive players interviewed for this story, none agreed with those characterizations.
“He cracks hard,” Pickett said. “Legal hits. He plays hard.”
When asked if Ward crosses the line, Bishop said: “No, I don’t think so.”
On defense, the Steelers’ earned reputation for physical play comes from several places, starting with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense in fewest yards allowed and yards allowed per carry. The player best-known for violent play, though, is outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 10½ sacks this season and 45 over the past four years. Harrison, a smallish (6-0, 242) but explosive outside pass rusher, was fined four times for illegal hits this season for a total of $125,000.
“I think that’s just a guy doing his job,” Green said. “I’m a defensive guy myself, some of the (fined) plays I’ve seen, to me he was just playing hard.”
The Packers, in fact, seem determined not to suggest in any way the Steelers cross the line into dirty play because they’re unwilling to concede anything in the physical part of the game.
“We feel like we’re physical, teams that play us probably say the same thing,” Pickett said. “When you play physical, you play to our strength.”