Where have the enforcers gone?

Ben Roethlisberger called it dirty. Jeff Hartings explained Odell Thurman had a reason. But the question remains: Should one of Roethlisberger's teammates paid Thurman or the Cincinnati Bengals back?

PITTSBURGH – Referee Bernie Kukar called the hit Cincinnati's Odell Thurman put on Ben Roethlisberger's knee last Sunday "roughing the passer."

Roethlisberger called it something else.

"He said he got pushed or tripped or something," said the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback, "but any time you go low on a quarterback, you know it's a little dirty."

A dirty hit, said the quarterback. Center Jeff Hartings, though, admitted he tripped Thurman inadvertently, sending the Bengals' blitzing rookie linebacker careening into Roethlisberger's leg.

Did anybody else think the hit was "a little dirty"?

"I didn't read into it like that," said linebacker Joey Porter.

Porter has been one of the Steelers' enforcers in recent years. He has the heart of a Jack Lambert and the audacity of a Greg Lloyd. He's a natural guardian of what's just, and a hit on the quarterback's knees could be construed as less than that.

Porter just shrugged his shoulders.

"The thing about it," he said, "at the end of the day, when you get into a situation like that, a battle with somebody else, when you feel a cheap shot has been done and you've tried to retaliate, someone's going to hit your pockets. And if the refs look at it as retaliation, you might get kicked out of the game."

Porter feels the day of the enforcer is gone. Perhaps the $10,000 fine he received for last year's pre-game fight in Cleveland has altered his outlook.

"The way the game is being officiated now, the refs now are trying to take all the aggressiveness out of football," he said. "You look at that and you look at Clark [Haggans] barely touching the guy. I mean, he barely touched his helmet. He gets fined for that and gets the penalty. You can't even touch the quarterback any more, so I really don't have an answer for that. They're trying to take so much aggressiveness out of football; you don't know what to do any more."

Lambert might've taken the same approach if he were playing today. The Steelers' legendary enforcer of the 1970s attended the Three Rivers Stadium finale in 2000. He was asked about the modern game.

"I would've donated my salary to the National Football League," Lambert said.

"Exactly," said Porter. "I had the same mentality: When you know it's a dirty shot, you want to do something back. But the way they come after you now, they don't even try to hit you on the football field. All the money they give you, they try to take it all back, and they're finding ways to get it back. So if you're rich enough to just go ahead and give $5,000 and $10,000 every time you do something silly, they're going to take it. So it's up to you if you want to give that type of money back."

Brian Urlacher, the star linebacker for the Steelers' upcoming opponent, the Chicago Bears, is also frustrated by the league's policies on hitting quarterbacks.

"Where do you want us to hit them?" Urlacher said. "You can't hit him in the face; you can't hit him in the chest; you can't hit him in the knees. I don't understand where we are supposed to hit the guys."

But if a hit is truly dirty, money shouldn't be a factor. Would the Steelers have won their second Super Bowl had Lambert not slammed Dallas' Cliff Harris after Harris taunted kicker Roy Gerela?

"That's what made Wayne Gretzky great, right?" asked Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "I mean, he had the great players that were willing to protect him around him.

"But I don't know," Polamalu continued. "Defensively speaking, honestly, I could argue that you should protect your quarterback. Don't get mad at me for hitting him. But that's because I'm a defensive player."

The Steelers' offensive policeman over the years has been wide receiver Hines Ward. He's been called a cheap-shot artist, but many of those hits were dished out as retribution.

How did he see Thurman's hit on Roethlisberger?

"Was it dirty? I don't know," Ward said. "He's just a rookie running around."

Thurman, it should be noted, is one of Ward's proud Georgia Bulldogs. To Ward, Thurman is innocent -- for now.

"You make a note of the guy and make sure it doesn't happen again," Ward said.

Have the Steelers made a note of Odell Thurman?

"Mentally you have," Ward said. "Until the next time we play them we'll remember him. I will."


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