NEW ORLEANS -- The new safety rules the NFL likely will pass this week could hurt the Steelers and not because they seem aimed at linebacker James Harrison.
The more stringent rules designed to protect defenseless players could hurt the Steelers best offensive player, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Rules proposed to keep quarterbacks healthy might curtail the performance of those quarterbacks who wiggle out of the grasp of defenders to keep a play going long enough to make something good happen. Under new proposed rules, many of those Roethlisberger escapes could be blown dead by an official. The old "in the grasp" whistle that became so unpopular in the NFL is making its way back, and that's not conducive to the way Roethlisberger plays the game.
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, says that while it could negatively impact Roethlisberger's play, the safety of the player is more important.
"The play ends at some point," Colbert said shortly after he arrived in New Orleans for the start of the annual NFL spring meetings. "For the safety of the player as opposed to lengthening of a play, at what point is a play unsafe or what point is a play over? I think the referees have to decide that.
"Teams have to understand that once they blow [the play dead], you can't gripe about a quarterback being called in the grasp if you have an elusive, strong quarterback like we do. If he's called down, he's called down. It's for his own good, it's for every team's own good."
Many second-effort plays could be restrained by the new rules.
"Same thing for the ballcarriers," Colbert noted. "We all have running backs and you want to protect them. But if a play's over, it should be blown dead."
Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL's competition committee, explained the new rule is designed to protect players in eight different categories. One is a "runner who's already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped."
Such a quick whistle might have negated some of Roethlisberger's more memorable plays after he was seemingly stopped in the backfield but scrambled away. One occurred in 2008 in Jacksonville in which he threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward. Another happened in Baltimore last season after he escaped the grasp of linebacker Terrell Suggs then flipped an incomplete pass that helped save the winning touchdown drive. That drive ultimately brought the Steelers the AFC North Division championship and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Without either of those two plays, the Steelers might not have reached the Super Bowl in the 2008 and '10 seasons. There have been many others like them through the years but the new rules could curtail that part of Roethlisberger's game.
"Of course it would, but we're also out for protecting not only him but every team has a quarterback, so you want to protect those guys because they are so valuable," Colbert said. "So, sure it would take away from his ability to make big plays but it would also add him more protection.
"It's like any other rule. You have to still weigh the competitiveness and what our game's based on but you have to do it in a safe manner."
Colbert denied that the NFL rules-makers are specifically targeting Harrison, who was fined $100,000 for three separate hits last season. The league proposes to crack down more on players who are repeat offenders and say they will begin suspending them next season.
"Discipline -- and aggressive discipline for these safety rules and violations, particularly the ones that we all know can be devastating -- will be an emphasis in 2011," said Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations.
"It's nothing to do with the Steelers or any particular player," Colbert insisted. "I mean, safety is the ultimate goal. But it's a fast, hard-hitting game and you have to keep that element in there or you're not going to have a game. How do you keep that in there without endangering the players?"
Over lunch Sunday, Colbert watched the Penguins lose to the New York Rangers and with it another blow to an opponent's head by Matt Cooke. He said football isn't the only sport these days trying to implement rules to protect the health of its players, especially injuries to the head.
"In terms of the defenseless players, I can say that all sports now are aware of the severity of head and neck injuries. We have to make sure we do everything we can to protect the players without taking away from the game. Somewhere there's a compromise that will make the game safer, but also keep it competitive and entertaining."
NOTE -- An abridged version of the spring meetings officially starts today and ends Tuesday, partly because of the lockout the owners have deployed against their players in a labor strife now into its 10th day. Usually, these spring events are part meetings, part convention and relaxation that include families and plenty of pool time and would run 4-5 days. Few families, however, are in attendance. The Steelers' party includes executives Kevin Colbert, Art Rooney, Mark Hart, Omar Khan and coach Mike Tomlin and no family members.