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The earth shifted beneath their feet in the third week of October. After a Sunday full of violent hitting across the NFL, the league abruptly took up the worthy and important cause of player safety and began aggressively fining those who delivered blows deemed especially dangerous. It was one of the most significant moments in modern NFL history, certain to alter the path of the game in the long term and to create confusion and bitterness in the present. It shook every team to its marrow, but none more than the Steelers, a franchise built both historically and currently on the underpinnings of hard-nosed, physical football. The team plays in a city, after all, where the headgear of choice at home games is a yellow hard hat.
When the league levied its first set of fines, Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was slapped hardest, docked $75,000 for a now infamous Oct. 17 hit on Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. He would eventually rack up $100,000 in fines in seven weeks. Harrison and the Steelers felt scapegoated by the harsh enforcement—"It seemed like we were the focal point of the rule," says safety Ryan Clark—but more urgently, they faced a crisis inside their own locker room. They had made themselves great by playing up to the line that separates tough from dirty play. Now that line was being moved.
Mike Tomlin delivered a message to his team that was part warning and part defiance. "Coach said you can't control what the refs are calling, and you can't control what the NFL is trying to do with the rules," recalls cornerback Ike Taylor. "You can control how you play the game, and you've got to fight through this. The refs are in a tough situation right now, but we can't stop playing our style of football."
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Pro Bowl cornerback in the bloody 1960s (when the clothesline tackle was legal), made the point even more forcefully. "He told us to keep playing hard and doing exactly what we've been doing," says defensive end Brett Keisel. "He said we're not going to slow down regardless of whatever else is going on. We're going to play to the whistle."
For nearly a month after the new era dawned, the Steelers struggled. They lost two out of four games (albeit to good opponents: the Saints in New Orleans on Oct. 31 and the Patriots at home on Nov. 14) and survived against the Bills on Nov. 28 only because Stevie Johnson dropped a sure touchdown in overtime. They were treading water. But slowly an attitude emerged from the confusion. "There was no team meeting or anything like that," says nosetackle Casey Hampton. "But we talked a lot about how the new rules were b.s. And you know what our mind-set became? They want to make rules about hitting? We're gonna hit harder."
And here was Hampton on Sunday night, slowly (as befitting a man who weighs something well north of his listed 325 pounds) jogging around the inside of Heinz Field, slapping hands with delirious fans in the wake of a 24--19 AFC Championship Game victory over the Jets that sent Pittsburgh to its record-tying eighth Super Bowl appearance, on Feb. 6 against the Packers. It seemed that few of the more than 66,000 fans had left the stadium, the crowd swaying and waving Terrible Towels to the schlocky strains of the Steelers' Super Bowl anthem (Here We Go) and expelling a massive, collective cloud of breath into the 15º night sky.
It can be said that every season has its own dramatic arc. (And even if it does not, players will manufacture one, as Pittsburgh wideout and veteran leader Hines Ward did on Sunday. He told reporters gathered in the winning locker room, "None of you guys gave us a chance," when in fact most of us guys did.) For the Steelers this one included playing the first four games without suspended and disgraced (and to hear it now, chastened) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger; losing not one but two offensive tackles (and on Sunday rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, who suffered a high ankle sprain on Pittsburgh's first drive and might sit out the Super Bowl); and missing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for parts of three games late in the season.
Yet through all the turmoil the Steelers' brutal toughness endured, the epoxy that held a damaged team together. Even as the NFL sought to make its game safer, Pittsburgh found a way to make it no less punishing. "You could say we learned to adjust, a little bit," Clark said on Sunday night. "But we remained physical. People walking out of this place"—he pointed from the locker room to the Heinz turf outside—"still feel like they've been in a football game."
The Jets most certainly did. From last summer's HBO Hard Knocks tour de force to the talk-the-talk, walk-the-walk playoff takedown of the Super Bowl favorite Patriots, New York had overwhelmed the league by force of its—and coach Rex Ryan's—personality. While the Jets did not bait Pittsburgh as they had New England (excepting linebacker Bart Scott's ESPN signoff: "Can't wait!"), they arrived on Sunday riding a wave of bravado. And the Steelers emasculated them.
It started when New York deferred after winning the coin toss. Never mind that Ryan almost always defers. "We took it personally," says 344-pound left guard Chris Kemoeatu. "They had a chance to take the ball, but they put their defense on the field. That's calling us out." The Steelers responded with a punishing 15-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that took more than nine minutes and left the Jets embarrassed, rolled over like a scout team. "The plan was to run the ball," said Kemoeatu. "Set the tone and be physical early. I think we did that."