Coach Mike Tomlin still insisted Wednesday that James Harrison's hit on Cleveland wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was a legal one, yet maintained that his players should not be confused about how to tackle after the NFL came down hard on the Steelers' linebacker.
"There's no confusion," Tomlin declared. "There really isn't. It's a very emotional thing, but there's no confusion."
Confusion, though, dominated the Steelers' locker room, a place that did not include Harrison. The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker was absent from work, and he and his agent said he was contemplating retirement after the league fined him $75,000 Tuesday for the high hit on Massaquoi. Tomlin, however, said that after meeting with Harrison early Wednesday morning, he gave him the day off.
"A very productive conversation," Tomlin described it. "I thought it was beneficial to him and us if I give him a little time to cool off and give him the day. I excused him at that time.
"I'm sure he'll be back in the building and ready to play football tomorrow.
"Needless to say, this is a very emotional thing for James. He's a very disciplined and regimented guy. He's passionate about the game of football. It bothers him that he may be perceived as a dirty player. He doesn't desire to be. Simply wants to play the game and play it well."
While Harrison suffered the consequences of his hit, he is not the only defender wondering how to tackle after the NFL lowered the boom on three defensive players for what it ruled illegal hits Sunday. New England's Brandon Meriweather and Atlanta's Dunta Robinson each were fined $50,000 for their hits, all to the head area.
Many Steelers declined to talk about Harrison's fine or render an opinion on his hits -- including union player rep Charlie Batch -- because Tomlin told them not to. It did not stop them from raising the issue of how to play their game on defense.
"We all have the same concerns about what's legal and what's not legal," said linebacker James Farrior, the defensive captain. "I don't think it's defined right now, so it's a question mark for us. We don't want to get into trouble every time we hit somebody, so it's definitely a concern."
LaMarr Woodley, Harrison's counterpart on the left side, said they're all confused.
"It's just hard to kind of figure out how you're going to hit a guy. When you're out there playing football, sometimes people who have the ball try to avoid the contact; they're going low and you aim at their chest and sometimes you happen to have a helmet-to-helmet collision on that."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell notified teams in a memo and accompanying video Wednesday that more significant discipline, including suspensions, will be imposed on players who strike an opponent in the head or neck area in violation of the rules.
Another helmet-to-helmet collision occurred in the second half Sunday at Heinz Field when Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis lowered his head into the face of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. The hit knocked Polamalu from the game, although he said Wednesday there is nothing wrong with him and he has not been on their injury list.
Did Polamalu see anything wrong with that hit?
"No, because I don't think the defense should be illegal. It should go both ways. I just think that no matter what it's not right."
Farrior bemoaned the one-sided fine system the NFL seems to have.
"I want to see defensive players protected. We're always getting fined as defensive players with hits on offensive guys. What's protecting us?"
Several Steelers said that knees will be more at risk for ballcarriers because defenders will avoid going high on them.
"Guys are going to fear getting a big fine," said Woodley, "and they're going to start going for guys' knees, and that's going to be a serious problem once guys start getting their knees blown out and mess up the way they walk the rest of their lives."
Even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said that while he prefers to not be injured, he'd take a concussion over a knee injury.
Safety Ryan Clark, the target of criticism at times in the past for hits that turned out to be legal, said one thing came through perfectly clear from the NFL this week:
"We can't go around hitting guys in the head. They made that point. We understand that. Obviously, they wanted to make it a big issue."
"You just got to play by the rules," Clark said. "That's all I can say. You got to do what they say. The commissioner has made his decision, and this is how the game is going to be officiated, this is how the game is going to be ruled. You just go about and try to win football games the best way you can."
Early in the day, James Harrison went on Sirius XM radio and said he may retire rather than play within the rules as determined by league officials. He was not penalized for the hit Sunday.
"How can I continue to play this game the way that I've been taught to play this game since I was 10 years old?" Harrison said. "And now you're telling me that everything that they've taught me from that time on, for the last 20-plus years, is not the way you're supposed to play the game anymore. If that's the case, I can't play by those rules. You're handicapping me."
Bill Parise, Harrison's agent, confirmed that the linebacker was contemplating retirement.
"He's in the process of contemplating is it possible to play football under these new rules ... 'if I go to work and tackle somebody and get a fine.' "
Parise said there is "no fighting, no arguing," just discussions. He said Harrison has been talking with his coaches, the Steelers, his mother and the agent. His teammates and coach were not confused about one thing. They believe Harrison will return to work today.
"He just needed some time to get his thoughts together," Farrior said. "He'll be back."
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who leads the Steelers with 67 tackles (26 more than Farrior at No. 2), was named AFC defensive player of the week. He had 14 tackles, two sacks and an interception against the Browns. ... Harrison and Woodley were each given half a sack on a pass play by Joshua Cribbs that previously had been ruled a run. That was also the play in which Harrison knocked out Cribbs with a hit to the helmet. Harrison now leads the team with five sacks. Woodley has 3.5. ... Running back Rashard Mendenhall (bruised shoulder) went through a full practice. Offensive guard Trai Essex (ankle) was limited.