Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, responded to several Steelers players' claims that the league is targeting the team, particularly linebacker James Harrison, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Thursday.
"I would say that's misguided and, frankly, completely untrue," Anderson said when asked if the Steelers are being targeted. "Every team and every player, hopefully, will have the confidence that, if they play within the rules, we won't have this problem."
Anderson and NFL assistant director of operations Merton Hanks, a former player, are in charge of levying fines, and they've had Harrison on speed-dial lately.
Harrison was fined $25,000 this week for a helmet-leading hit on Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running the linebacker's tab this season to $125,000 for four separate violations of the league's policy on illegal hits.
"It angers me, of course, that they're taking absurd amounts of money from me for plays that I consider to be clean and legal hits," Harrison said Wednesday. "I'm sure if you asked 10 guys in the league, nine of them would say he's not a dirty player. He's a hard player. He's just getting a bad (reputation) right now."
Anderson reiterated the league's decree from earlier this season that those players inflicting helmet-to-helmet or flagrant hits will be subject to suspension.
Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward lashed out at the NFL on Wednesday for what he calls its hypocritical stance on player safety, arguing the league recently toughened its stance only because it wants to expand to an 18-game season.
"The league doesn't care about us anyway," said Ward, a 13-year veteran and the leading receiver in Steelers history. "They don't care about the safety of the game. If the league was so concerned about the safety, why are you adding two more games on? You talk about you don't want players to drink ... and all you see is beer commercials. You don't want us to gamble, but then there are (NFL-endorsed lottery scratch-off games)."
Asked about Ward's charge, Anderson said, "I have no comment to Hines Ward."
But Ward's concerns, as well as those about how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is wearing a protective boot on his sprained right foot, doesn't receive the same protection from officials afforded star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, as well as the amount of penalties called on the Steelers, have served to unify the locker room in the lead-up to a key AFC North showdown against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night.
Win, and the Steelers (8-3) could wind up with a first-round playoff bye. Lose, and they might be headed to the road as a wild-card team, while the Ravens (8-3) enjoy all the perks afforded a division champion.
The Steelers believe that their us-against-the-world stance is bringing them together. But even they don't know what their state of mind will be at game time for what Ravens coach John Harbaugh calls the NFL's best rivalry by far.
"It's crazy because usually people are talking (in advance) about the physicality of the game and how hard the hits are going to be," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "But people are talking about slowing down because they need their money and don't want to be fined. So, it's kind of taking away from it a little bit."
The Steelers are convinced they somehow have become the NFL team that receives the most policing, and not just because of Harrison's fines. They were flagged for a team-record 163 yards in penalties during a 35-3 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 21 and another 107 yards as they beat the Buffalo Bills 19-16 in overtime Sunday.
Tight end Heath Miller pointed to the numerous penalties and said: "There were a lot of negative plays (in Buffalo). We were converting third downs on offense and we were able to run the ball, but when you add those plays where you're moving backward, it makes it difficult to score."
Added linebacker James Farrior, the Steelers' defensive captain: "It's affecting everybody that plays defense. We can't just keep sitting here and taking it. Sooner or later, somebody's going to have to say something. We just can't keep quiet the whole time."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.