- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | During the 15 seasons that jut-jawed Bill Cowher strode the Pittsburgh sideline with intensity burning in his eyes and spittle flying from his mouth, the Steelers ran the ball with the same fury. From 1992 to 2006, the Steelers compiled the most rushing yards in the NFL, and they continued that success in 2007, ranking third in coach Mike Tomlin’s debut.

But this season, the Steelers’ ground game never got out of first gear and finished 23rd in rushing. If not for the NFL’s top defense leading the way to the AFC North title and a first-round bye, the 22nd-ranked offense’s struggles would have been magnified.

In addition to losing perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca to free agency last March, the line had lost tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons to season-ending injuries by Week 7. Star running back Willie Parker, who averaged 1,337 rushing yards the previous three years, ran for just 791 while missing five games with injuries.

But with Parker healthy again, the line overpowered the visiting San Diego Chargers in a 35-24 victory last week to set up a third game this season with the visiting Baltimore Ravens in Sunday’s AFC championship game.

Parker rushed for 146 yards against the Chargers, the most by a Steelers back in a postseason game since Hall of Famer Franco Harris rumbled for 153 against the Baltimore Colts in 1975.

“Willie told us all week, ‘It starts with you guys,’” tackle Max Starks said. “‘You push ‘em forward, and I’ll ride behind you.’”

That’s what happened, prompting Tomlin to say of his line, “They’ve come under some fire, but they’ve continued to grow.”

The line also kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a concussion in the regular-season finale, mostly upright. Overall, the offense looked like the black-and-gold bulldozer of old as it kept the ball for 36:30, including all but 17 seconds of the third quarter.

“Has that ever been done before?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked. “They took control of that football game.”

Roethlisberger told Parker last week that he was too good to question himself. Parker also received a pregame pep talk from former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history.

But whereas the burly Bettis was a pile driver, Parker is a slasher. Parker’s 5.4-yard average against San Diego was his highest since Week 1, and his 146 yards were the most of any back this postseason as well as his most since Dec. 7, 2006.

“Willie Parker, it looked like he had his swagger back, and that just raised the level of difficulty for us,” Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said.

Parker didn’t play in the teams’ first meeting in Week 4 in Pittsburgh and managed 47 yards on 14 carries in the second contest in Week 15 in Baltimore.

“To have [Parker] back at full strength, that obviously makes their offense that much more dynamic,” Ravens safety Jim Leonhard said.

Like the Ravens, the Steelers have reached the NFL’s final four largely because of their defense. However, the offense did enough to help Pittsburgh record 23-20 and 13-9 victories over its division rival. Roethlisberger’s 24-yard pass to running back Mewelde Moore set up Jeff Reed’s game-winning overtime field goal in Pittsburgh. In the final 9:26 of the rematch, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 54 yards for a field goal and then 92 yards for the game-winning touchdown against the league’s No. 2 defense.

“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said of Roethlisberger. “He plays football the way old-school people play football - just make a play. It don’t have to be pretty. It don’t have to be drawn up. … He’s a football player. He’ll do anything to keep the play going.”

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