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Steelers can live with bad boy rep as long as wins keep coming

LATROBE, Pa. -- The Steelers' overwhelming vote against the new collective bargaining agreement wasn't in retaliation.

It just seemed that way.

Players here will tell you that -- and remember, this is as veteran a team as they come and, as such, less apt to rubber-stamp that agreement -- they felt like they lacked the information to make a proper decision on the labor agreement last week. And that makes perfect sense, of course.

But it does seem like one more salvo between the Steelers and the league, a showdown that has been turned up by a series of fines levied on Pittsburgh players the last few years. So even with a new season, and a 4 1/2-month lockout in between, the Steelers are singing the same tune.

Is it somewhat imagined or exaggerated? Maybe. Veteran linebacker Larry Foote concedes, "Every time a flag is thrown we think the referee is out to get us, the league is out to get us. We've got a bunch of conspiracy type of guys on our team."

Whatever. It seems to work for the Steelers, as much as something like this can.

"It was something that we all discussed in our locker room, and it's something we really don't like to talk about," said the defense's captain, linebacker James Farrior. "But it definitely comes up a lot of times, and I feel sometimes we do feel like we're being targeted, especially with James Harrison and the fines. But it's something we've always been able to deal with.

"It's something we've always dealt with internally, and guys use that as focus and fire to go out there and play well."

Harrison, of course, is the posterboy for all this trouble. The All-Pro drew $100,000 in fines last year. And that's after appeals and reductions.

It's the primary one, but it's not the only example the Steelers cite on the league's policing of violent collisions being directed towards Western Pennsylvania.

What's really interesting, though, is how the players, much as they might squawk about the perceived inequities, embrace the image attached to the stigma. As if to say, Yeah, come and find out just how bad we really are.

"It's almost a compliment to the way we play, that we get the most attention about," said safety Ryan Clark. "It's a compliment to the physicality we bring to the games. The thing that makes us seem targeted is we have more guys who play that way, and maybe excessively, to a point. ...

"We're not sure, not sure if they watch film and say, 'OK, these guys play a certain way.' We're not sure if it comes from the top where, 'When the Pittsburgh Steelers play, be on alert for these types of situations.' But it just is what it is. We'd like if the rules that are for us, if they'd just name them after us. It'd be cool to have our own rules."

Clark was joking about that last part, but the comment didn't come without an edge.

The bottom line is that he and most of his teammates have been playing football a certain way for more than 20 years. And to tell a professional athlete to change his game -- when the margin between "good" and "not making the team" is so thin -- is difficult to do.

"Like coach (Mike) Tomlin said, it's better to say 'Whoa' than 'Sic 'em'," said Foote, who spent the first seven years of his career in Pittsburgh, and returned to the team last year. "That's our mentality. That's the mindset around this town. You'd be better getting fined than getting criticized for not hitting anybody. We'd rather be on that side of it."

Hard to argue with the result. The Steelers have finished in the top 10 in total defense in all 11 seasons since the turn of the century, placed in the top 5 in seven of those years, and came in first four times in that span.

They've also been to three Super Bowls and won two championships in that time, so clearly, something's working.

"Football is football, regardless. I mean, they talk about us so bad, and we always find a way to make the playoffs or even find a way to get in Super Bowls," said veteran corner Ike Taylor. "We just play football. I know D-Bo, aka James Harrison, apologized to the commish. Everything will work out man. We got some guys over here, man. We got some guys that if you walk into a bar, I don't think you really want to tell them too much, unless you want your head thrown on the floor. That's the way we play football."

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That's not exactly music to the league's ears.

But it's honest, and blunt, which is also a way of describing the Steelers' overall personality.

And right or wrong, some Steelers feel, pretty strongly, that the NFL's vision for cleaning up the game runs counter to all that. Is it really the World vs. Pittsburgh? Probably not, but that perception on the part of these players works for them, so the team is fine going with it.

"I don't think it's a bad mentality to have," said long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Throughout history, some people who were backed into corners sometimes did pretty well. More than anything, you have to unify in any team entity.

"In our endeavors here, we have some great team spirit. And whatever continues to foster that is a good thing. You can go too far with anything, but our players stand by each other."

And the results, of course, have long spoken for themselves.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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