PITTSBURGH - A power running game was the cornerstone of the storied Pittsburgh Steelers teams.
Too often this season, though, the Steelers had cornerstones for cleats.
They were a couldn't-run team heading for also-ran status. In its seven games against teams that wound up in the playoffs, Pittsburgh lost all but one of the rushing battles. Simply put, that's not Steelers football.
Maybe that's why Pittsburgh great Jerome "The Bus" Bettis looked especially pleased Sunday night as he stood outside the Steelers' locker room, his glittering Super Bowl ring as massive as a semi-truck lug nut. The Steelers ran around, over and through the San Diego Chargers, gaining 165 yards and helping keep the heat off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked just once.
"I like this team," Bettis said. "And I like it even more now that they're running the football. You've got to be able to do that in the playoffs, and in order to win a championship, you've got to have the ability to run."
Willie Parker showed that ability in a big way in the 35-24 divisional victory, running for 146 yards and two touchdowns. That's the club's highest rushing-yardage total in the postseason since Franco Harris ran for 153 against the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 27, 1975.
The next challenge is daunting: establish the run against the Ravens in Sunday's AFC championship game at Heinz Field. The Ravens, swept by Pittsburgh during the regular season by a total of seven points, boast a defense that finished second overall (to Pittsburgh) and third against the run.
Bettis, for one, has no concerns about the Steelers' defense or the conditions, which are sure to be frigid.
"The environment here is really tough," he said. "The weather is bad. The field is bad. The defense is badass. So it makes for a really, really tough day for opposing teams to come in."
What has concerned him is his old team's ability to move the ball on the ground. Before Sunday's game, Bettis pulled aside Parker, just a pup when they played in the 2006 Super Bowl together, and gave him a few words of encouragement. Having slogged through five weeks of sub-par performances heading into the regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, Parker found the chat uplifting.
"He just told me to believe in myself," Parker said. "He heard and read all week long about how I'm healthy, and he said he just wanted me to show him. I looked him in his eyes and put my hand over my heart, and I really didn't have to say anything."
"When it's working, it's working," said Roethlisberger, who opened Pittsburgh's first possession with three consecutive handoffs. "We saw something that we thought we could pound them, and the line did a good job of doing it."
That offensive line had been derided all season - and rightly so - for its protection breakdowns and its inability to open holes the way Pittsburgh has in the past. In yesterday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, columnist Ron Cook told the story of Steelers tackle Willie Colon walking through the Wal-Mart parking lot recently when a fan drove past and offered his opinion.
"He rolls down his window and says, 'You guys had better bleepin' protect,' " Colon told Cook. "I was like, 'Dude, I'm just here to get a loaf of bread.' "
Bettis says there has been precious little loafing by the offense lately. By his thinking, the turnaround started with the regular-season finale against Cleveland, in which the Steelers ran for 176 yards in a 31-0 throttling. The Browns didn't sack Roethlisberger or backup Byron Leftwich and hardly pressured them.
"That game made a difference with [the Steelers] because now they've got the confidence in the offensive line; Willie Parker's got the confidence that, hey, we can run the football if we have to. And they showed that tonight."