Cook: Von Oelhoffen miscast in role of a villain

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The big man cried.

Right there on the field in front of his Steelers teammates, the Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Carson Palmer, who was in too much shock to notice, Kimo von Oelhoffen cried.

"I had to tell him to snap out of it," linebacker Joey Porter recalled yesterday.

It wasn't easy for von Oelhoffen, a kind, decent man. It's never easy putting a lick on another player, hearing his knee pop and hearing the guttural scream that follows. That can shake even the biggest of men to his core.

"Lee Harvey von Oelhoffen," one Cincinnati press box wag quickly dubbed the villain -- at least from the Cincinnati perspective -- on the play that ended Palmer's day Sunday.

That was mild compared to what von Oelhoffen heard on the field. Several of the Bengals screamed at him out of frustration, knowing their season was done without Palmer, which, sure enough, it was a few hours later after the Steelers' 31-17 playoff victory. It's one thing for young-punk running back Chris Perry, who hasn't done much in the pros, to call von Oelhoffen a dirty player. What does he know? But for respected, longtime offensive tackle Willie Anderson to do it? To a former teammate with the Bengals? Fully knowing, as Porter put it, that "Kimo is the last guy in the world who would intentionally try to hurt anyone."

"That made Kimo mad," Porter said.

"He was crying," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said, "but his remorse didn't last long after they started taking those unfair shots at him."

Von Oelhoffen politely declined to discuss the Palmer incident this week, citing a gag order from coach Bill Cowher. "He doesn't want any distractions." He insisted again that the hit wasn't malicious but said he still will send Palmer a note after the season expressing his regret for his injury. He clearly was pleased to hear that Palmer, after seeing tape of the play, had exonerated him.

It's fair to wonder at this point if the Steelers and their fans would've reacted so magnanimously if one of the Bengals had taken out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with a similar hit.

And how about this question:

Would the Bengals have been so charitable if Porter had injured Palmer?

"Oh, man, I don't think so," Porter said, giggling. "I can just hear them. 'That's Joey. He did it intentionally. That's the way he plays. He's dirty ...'

"Actually, I wish it had been me, so Kimo wouldn't have had to go through that. It took him out of his game for a while. He got through it, but he told me afterward that he didn't think he played a good game."

That's the first time all season von Oelhoffen had to say that.

He has had a terrific year.

It's a shame he received more national attention for the Palmer play than for all the great plays he has made combined.

"It's always been that way with Kimo," Porter said. "I remember the year he had eight sacks [in 2003]. For him to create that kind of havoc from his position is unbelievable. It was a disgrace he didn't make the Pro Bowl. He's just so underrated."

Foote said von Oelhoffen is a team leader, "right there with Ben, [Jerome Bettis], Hines [Ward] and Joey ... when he speaks, everyone listens." Get this: Foote keeps a notebook and writes down advice from von Oelhoffen on everything from taking on blocks to offseason conditioning programs to life.

That leadership thing is all well and good, but it's on the field where von Oelhoffen has the biggest impact. His inside push on the quarterback has been impressive again this season, the proof being not so much Palmer's injury as his 31/2 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries and 4 tipped passes. But it's against the run where he really excels.

"You can't move him out of his gap," Foote said.

Von Oelhoffen does it with his bulk and power. He does it with his experience from 12 years in the NFL. "I feel like I'm one of the best at what I do," von Oelhoffen said. "I can be a factor ...

"I can read a play, read the blockers, and know where the ball is going. I can either shrink the gap or eat up blockers and keep my guys" -- Porter, Foote, etc. -- "from getting blocked."

Von Oelhoffen and the others must play their best game Sunday for the Steelers to have a chance in Indianapolis. The Colts' Edgerrin James ran for 124 yards when the teams played Nov. 28, a 26-7 Colts victory. Porter called it a "cheap 100" the other day, but, hey, a buck-twenty-four is a buck-twenty-four.

If James runs for 124 again, the Colts will win.

If the Steelers hold James to 65 yards, von Oelhoffen figures to have a big, meaty hand in it and the Steelers probably will win.

One final question:

If it goes the Steelers' way, do you think von Oelhoffen will be singled out on "SportsCenter"?

No, probably not.

Michael Keating, Associated Press
Kimo von Oelhoeffen waits for help to arrive after the injury to Carson Palmer.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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