Penalty? So what?
Ward delivered one of the most memorable hits of last season when he decked Rivers with a high, straight-up block during Pittsburgh's 38-10 victory last October. Rivers, then a rookie starting his seventh NFL game, never saw it coming. The hit broke his jaw, ended his season and prompted a rules change outlawing high, blind-side hits.
The change, commonly known as the Hines Ward Rule, includes a 15-yard penalty for offenders. And the receiver said he's willing to break it on Sunday when the Steelers play the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, figuring it's better to hit 'em high rather than to go after somebody's knees with a block.
"I'll still hit him," Ward said Wednesday in Pittsburgh. "I'll just get fined. There's nothing I can do about it. It's either that or try to hurt somebody. So are you going to fine me, or do you want me to end someone's career? I'd rather take a fine than try to end somebody's career, so I'm not going to change."
It'll be the first time that Ward and Rivers go at it since the injury. When the former Southern California linebacker returned to the stadium after getting his jaw wired shut, he said Ward's hit was clean, but he also said he was looking forward to the next time they got on the field together.
"You know, you reap what you sow," Rivers said, 10 days after the play. "That's what happens. What goes around, comes around. We'll see what happens."
Since that time, Rivers has backed off his subtle suggestions and tried to get beyond the play, though it's been nearly impossible to avoid.
Sitting in a meeting room at Georgetown College during training camp, Rivers and the rest of the Bengals were shown an NFL video that highlights the new rules for 2009. Four minutes and 26 seconds in, Rivers got to relive his awful moment. The video showed the play, with both players singled out by yellow circles to rivet the viewers' attention.
Rivers has seen it a lot.
"It is what it is," he said Wednesday. "It's over, and now it's time to play them again and have a good season."
The hit was legal last season -- there was no flag, and even upset Bengals players acknowledged it was a gritty, within-the-rules play. Although the rules change would theoretically protect Rivers in the same situation, the linebacker doesn't know if that's what will happen in practice.
"We'll see how it all plays out, and we'll see how the rule works out," Rivers said. "Hopefully it works out and people don't miss half a year. I'm just looking forward to playing. I really don't have much to say about it."
Ward isn't so shy. He has bristled at suggestions he was doing something to hurt another player when he blocked Rivers.
"The unfortunate thing is me being labeled that, and then the rule change came out, so it's kind of like me being singled out as the dirty guy that's in the league, a dirty offensive player," Ward said. "A wide receiver being dirty -- I take that as a compliment."
Ward's hit added to the hard feelings in Cincinnati, where they still stew over the way Steelers lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen hit Carson Palmer low on his first pass during their 2005 playoff game, shredding the quarterback's left knee. Ward sees a difference between a hit delivered to try to harm and one delivered to make a play.
"It's football," Ward said. "When Kimo went at Carson, it was just a hustle play, he didn't try to hurt him. You could tell by his expression after he hit him. He felt bad. Any player's not trying to go out there and hurt somebody and trying to end someone's career."
Bengals rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, who played with Rivers at USC, remembers seeing the play with teammates when he was in college.
"I'm pretty sure everybody was like, 'Oh!" Maualuga said. "Our first thought was, 'Welcome to the NFL. It's more physical.'"
Maualuga has an idea what will happen when Rivers and Ward go head to head.
"If he has a clean hit, Keith is going to be Keith," Maualuga said.