Much-maligned Steelers line hopes to pave way to Super Bowl

PITTSBURGH -- Running the ball effectively is supposed to be second nature for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Slam the door on defense. Plow it open on offense. That's what the Steelers do.

Except this season.

While the Steelers' defense occupied its customary perch atop the NFL, their ground game struggled through much of 2008 and wound up ranked 23rd in the league. The team's coaches had understandably become reluctant to consistently run the ball. They understandably had doubts about the offensive line's ability to open holes. They understandably questioned whether Willie Parker, who had become tentative after missing five games with knee and shoulder injuries, trusted his body enough to run with the abandon that had established him as a premiere back early in his five-year career.

Then, on the eve of the divisional-round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians stood at the front of a meeting room and shared his play script with the members of his unit. Some eyes widened. Some jaws dropped.

"When your offensive coordinator puts up your first 15 plays on the board the night before the game, and there are three run plays to start off the game, he's kind of letting you know that the ball's in your court and you're going to set the tone," center Justin Hartwig said.

With Parker's 22 yards on those first three carries, the tone was set for his 146-yard, 5.4-yards-per-carry, two-touchdown performance.

"As an offensive line, we take pride in running the ball," Hartwig said. "(Arians) instilled confidence in us, and we stepped up."

But there was even greater significance from the 27 times that Parker was called upon to carry the ball.

The Steelers, who made playoff history by limiting the Chargers to just one offensive play in the third quarter, made a statement that they can and will lean on their ground game through the rest of the postseason. Smothering defense can take them a long way -- and already has. But their chances of reaching and winning the Super Bowl are much better if they have the ability to pound the ball, control the clock and effectively make their greatest strength -- defense -- that much stronger.

"It is the commitment and will," Parker said. "We're going to run the ball no matter what. We're going to make mistakes, but we're going to come right back to the line. I think everybody believes, and that is the main thing."

Said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "It motivates offensive linemen when you pound the ball, and the defense kind of gets demoralized a little bit. It's one of those things that you put it right down their throat, and our guys did a great job (against the Chargers)."

They face a much greater task trying to do the same against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. The Ravens' defense, ranked second in the NFL overall and third against the run, held Pittsburgh to 69 and 91 yards on the ground (with 2.5 and 3.4 yards per carry, respectively) during Baltimore's two regular-season losses. Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall, playing in place of Parker, finished with just 30 yards before leaving with a season-ending shoulder injury in the first game. Parker had only 47 yards in the second.

Yet, the Steelers have reason to be encouraged. They have a two-game streak of rushing success, beginning with the 176 yards they had in their 31-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the regular-season finale. Parker, who ran for 116 yards against the Browns, seemingly has developed a hot hand at the perfect time. Consider that in the 10 games before the regular-season finale, Parker averaged 3.6 yards per carry. In his last two games, he has averaged 5.2.

"At this time of year, you are either a team on the rise or you are not," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "The same probably goes for individuals. (Parker) has had a tough go of it at times from a health standpoint during the season, but he weathered it early, and he appears to be rising at the appropriate time. It is great for him and even better for us."

Said Parker: "I'm not struggling anymore. It's real hard for a running back to make plays when he's struggling and you're out there trying to make plays instead of going out and playing confident."

No one questioned Parker's confidence when he gained 243 yards on 53 carries in the first two games of the season, but then he suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in a Week 3 loss at Philadelphia. After sitting out the next four games, Parker returned to help the Steelers beat the Washington Redskins. Yet, he suffered a dislocated shoulder in that game and missed the next week's contest against the Indianapolis Colts.

Another reason the Steelers should be encouraged about their ability to move the ball well on the ground against Baltimore this time is because the Ravens' struggled to stop the run in their divisional-round win over Tennessee.

Although his confidence might be restored, Parker does have a history of poor showings against the Ravens. His single-game high against Baltimore is 63 yards, which came in 2005. He has never rushed for a touchdown against the Ravens.

To what does Ravens free safety Ed Reed attribute his team's ability to contain Parker?

"The front seven doing a great job," he said. "It's not just with Willie Parker. It's with running backs in general. They take pride in stopping the run. We take pride in stopping the run."

Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan also takes great pride in confusing opponents with a variety of fronts and blitz combinations. As Pittsburgh offensive tackle Willie Colon points out, preparing for Baltimore's defense requires "a lot of studying."

"The Ravens are a whole different animal," Hartwig said. "They're all over the place with their defense. We're going to have to do a great job of identifying (what they do). Obviously, it builds confidence in our group that we can run the ball. We know what we're capable of, but the Ravens have a stellar defense. It's nice to have (the game against the Chargers) as a building block."

And it's nice to have videotape and notes from two recent games to study the complexities of the Ravens' defense.

"Having played them two times, you have more confidence about recognizing those types of things," Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks said. "It's just going to take a concentrated effort on our part to make sure we're aware of those things at all times. We can never blink. We can never give them any ground backwards.

"We've got to always push forward."

Once upon a time, that was routine for the Steelers' offensive line.

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