PITTSBURGH - When the Steelers made their last successful Super Bowl run after the 2005 season, Antwaan Randle El - the multitalented wide receiver and special teams player - made a handful of key plays that propelled Pittsburgh through the postseason.
But after throwing a touchdown pass in the Steelers' Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks, Randle El left for the Washington Redskins as a free agent during the offseason, and the Steelers immediately moved to fill the gap with first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes.
Holmes, a speedy wide receiver like Randle El, doesn't have the passing ability of his predecessor, but he does provide similar explosiveness. Last week in the Steelers' 35-24 playoff win over the San Diego Chargers, he scored Pittsburgh's first touchdown on a 67-yard punt return to tie the score at 7.
When asked whether Holmes is filling Randle El's role the way the Steelers had hoped, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said, "He was just like him last week."
In addition to the touchdown return against San Diego, Holmes had two receptions and two rushing attempts, good for three first downs.
"You could do some things with El gadget-wise, halfback passes, that [Holmes] doesn't bring to the table," Arians said. "But 'Tone has better downhill speed and he's a better runner after the catch. He has big, big plays against this [Ravens] defense. In the first game [this season], he took a slant to the house. Last year, he took one to the house. That's the kind of play we need out of him."
In three seasons, Holmes has five touchdowns against the Ravens, including the controversial game-winner at the goal line in the Steelers' 13-9 victory at M&T; Bank Stadium in December. But perhaps more worrisome for the Ravens should be the 38-yard touchdown catch in Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime win in September.
On that score, Holmes caught a slant as one Ravens defender went for the ball, then he eluded two more on the way to the end zone.
"When they drafted me, they jumped up six, seven spots to get me," Holmes said of the Steelers' efforts to replace Randle El. In the 2006 draft, Pittsburgh traded with the New York Giants to move up from the 32nd spot in the first round to 25th to choose the former Ohio State star.
"I didn't have any problem with filling anybody's shoes stepping in, but I made a name for myself," Holmes said yesterday. "You don't hear anyone talking about that punt return looking like Randle El or that a catch looked like anything else. That's all Santonio Holmes out there making those plays."
This season, Holmes had 55 catches for 821 yards and five touchdowns. As a punt returner, he had mainly been kept in check during the regular season with a 6.6-yard average, but then he had that breakout play against San Diego.
Holmes will occasionally fumble, though. In 2008, he had four fumbles, losing one. Only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has lost the ball more for the Steelers.
Considering that the Ravens are plus-seven in turnovers during the playoffs, keeping the ball safe is a priority for the Steelers. But Holmes said he can't allow fear to override his aggressiveness.
"You try to play mistake-free, but when you focus on playing mistake-free, you get away from your game," Holmes said. "You kind of lose focus on making the big play, you get too afraid to take chances, and when you're afraid to take chances, sharks start to smell blood in the water and they're going to attack."