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12-01-2008, 06:43 PM

Welker, Patriots feel wrath -- pain -- of Steelers football
Nov. 30, 2008
By Mike Freeman
CBSSports.com National Columnist
Tell Mike your opinion!

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You could see it coming. You knew that Wes Welker was just seconds away from losing his senses, his head or both.

Yes, Ryan Clark's hit on Wes Welker is vicious, but it's just part of the game. (AP) As Welker approached the middle of the field while running a crossing route, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark had a radar lock on him. The pass to Welker was thrown slightly in front of him, leaving Welker more than slightly vulnerable. Clark was going to take advantage of the dangerous throw by Matt Cassel.

Clark put a hit on Welker that caused anyone who saw it to violently gasp. Welker looked like one of those boardwalk whack-a-mole games. His body crumbled to the ground, and how he was able to walk away from the hit is a testament to the toughness and malleability of the human body. The hit was brutal, nasty and frightening.

But it wasn't dirty.

It was football.

Clark was penalized for the hit by game officials -- he shouldn't have been -- and he'll likely be fined by the league. But the hit wasn't dirty. It was intimidating and facemask-bending, but it wasn't dirty.

"It wasn't like I was trying to be cheap," Clark said. "Anybody that comes across (the middle) it's my job to tackle them. The ball got tipped, but (the official) said I shouldn't have left my feet. I didn't know how to control that. I talked to (Patriots running back) Kevin Faulk and apologized. I couldn't find Welker after the game to tell him I wasn't trying to be dirty."

There was no need to apologize to anybody. Don't be a wuss.

The Steelers won, 33-10, in an ugly game played mostly in a steady rain. That's the good news for Pittsburgh. The Steelers are clearly one of the premier teams of the league. They established that fact with a convincing victory over a solid Patriots team.

But the Steelers also are likely to inspire another round of questions about their style of play after the Welker hit and another hit witnessed by me that many people didn't notice.

Thus all of this leads to a question. Does Pittsburgh play dirty?

My answer? Hell, no. But dirty appears to be in the eye of the observer.

Many people will say the Steelers play cheap after the hit on Welker is dissected and discussed.

Yet just because the hit was violent doesn't mean it was dirty. Nor was it excessive.

It was football.

Remember what that is?

There was a similar play in the game few likely spotted that involved another Steelers player, this one accused of crossing the line in the past, wide receiver Hines Ward.

In the second quarter, Ward was in the slot position, on the right side of the field. After the ball was snapped he traversed across the grain and zeroed in on an unsuspecting Brandon Meriweather, the safety for the Patriots, who was providing run support.

Meriweather didn't see the receiver barreling down until it was too late. Ward knew this. He increased his speed and bashed an unprepared Meriweather up high. Meriweather was knocked to the ground and looked to be momentarily stunned and after the play exchanged words with Ward.

"Ward is the best in the league at making you pay when you're not paying attention," Meriweather said. "That's his reputation."

Was it dirty?

"It wasn't dirty," Meriweather said. "It's just part of the game."

The play was not so different from the one where Ward cracked back on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers in a game in October. The hit led to Rivers suffering a broken jaw.

"That's what he's known for," Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe said at the time about Ward. "You expect that coming in. People are going to take their shots when they can. Too bad he can't hit someone face up. It's too bad he has to wait until he's not looking to get him. It's unfortunate. It's the type of guy he is. That's all right. We play them again. He's a blind-side guy."

He is a blind-side guy.

But as Meriweather said, that's not dirty. It's borderline. It's angering. It gets opposing teams and opposing fans riled up, but it's not dirty.

When you play the Steelers, you know it's coming. So just be ready for it.

And stop crying.

So are the Steelers dirty?

Hell, no. But let the debate begin.

Or rather, let the debate continue.