PITTSBURGH – All week long, Jerome Bettis had been hearing that Willie Parker was healthy; finally ready to be the man again, finally ready to reestablish the religion of Pittsburgh Steelers football. So he pulled Parker aside on Sunday afternoon, and shared a little wisdom about self-belief and once again showing the Steelers faithful who he was.
"I kind of looked him in his eyes and just put my hand over my heart," Parker said. "That kind of symbolized that [I was telling him] 'I feel you.' He definitely knew what I was talking about."
A few hours later, the San Diego Chargers would feel Parker, too. But this would be the old Willie Parker – the one who stacked up 4,012 rushing yards the three previous seasons, and renewed the belief that Pittsburgh could still be a dominant running team. And he did it to the tune of two touchdowns and 146 yards as the Steelers defeated the Chargers 35-24. It was a hefty playoff bounty that hasn't been seen in this town since Franco Harris had 153 against the Baltimore Colts in the 1975 playoffs.
The performance couldn't have come soon enough, with next week's AFC championship game against the Ravens promising to be one of the most barbaric matchups of the season. If ever there were a need for momentum with a single player (Parker) and a single unit (his offensive line), this will be it.
"At this time of year, you are either a team on the rise or you are not, and the same probably goes for individuals," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "[Willie] has had a tough go of it at times from a health standpoint during the season. But he weathered it early and appears to be rising at the appropriate time. It's great for him and even better for us."
– Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Particularly after a season in which the running game seemed to be the consistently loose thread. While Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians talked about running the football – lectured about it at every turn, really – the product on the field often betrayed them. Not in the most obvious ways, mind you. Pittsburgh could still pile up rushing yardage in a game, but there were too many third-and-short situations that came up empty, too many times when drives into the red zone resulted in field-goal attempts.
Not that the Steelers didn't have ample justification. Parker struggled with knee and shoulder injuries, while the offensive line was hampered by its own injuries, particularly that of big left tackle Marvel Smith. Even the three-game loss of tight end Heath Miller made a significant difference in the continuity of Arians' scheme, which is largely built around spreading out the line of scrimmage and creating vertical seams to utilize Parker's speed.
That's why Sunday's effort came at such a critical time – running as a religion in Pittsburgh needed a sign from above. And what the Steelers put forth against San Diego delivered faith to the followers. From three running plays to start the game, to a monumental third quarter that saw the Steelers possess the ball a deflating 14:43, to three touchdown runs in San Diego's red zone. Indeed, this was the performance that revived an entire philosophy and emboldened the players who put it into motion.
"[Those three opening runs] have got to be a Bruce Arians first maybe," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We saw something, thought we could pound them, and the line did a good job doing it. You wear them down, guys are rotating in and out, it motivates the offensive linemen when you pound the ball. The defense gets kind of demoralized a little bit."
The performance of the line might have been the most underrated aspect of the night. A group that has been criticized all season long as being only a shade of formerly dominant Steelers lines, it continually opened pockets for Parker, while giving Roethlisberger time to operate. That's a far cry from most of the season, when the unit gave up 49 sacks (fourth worst in the NFL) and had occasional problems in short yardage situations.
"You can call us the garbage men," said Pittsburgh offensive tackle Max Starks, who stepped into the starting lineup when Smith went down with a back injury. "As much trash as you shovel at us, we're going to go ahead and put it away. We only get stronger as a unit. … The unit that I was on three years ago when we went to the Super Bowl, you look at that team, that was a very well-seasoned veteran group. They had four returning guys from the previous year, whereas I was kind of the new cog in that group. This group, we have four new guys [starting right now] and only one returning guy [from last season]. It was kind of flip-flopped."
But Pittsburgh has been far better offensively since a Week 15 blowout loss at Tennessee, which saw Roethlisberger sacked five times. Now the Steelers have feasted on Cleveland in the season finale – hardly a feather in their cap – and repeated the feat against a resurgent Chargers defense. Roethlisberger was sacked only once Sunday, and had almost flawless second-half protection.
As Chargers coach Norv Turner simplified it: "They got back to the run, and that certainly helps their quarterback."
"I'm pretty sure we answered all questions about how our offense struggled," said Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes. "When we really needed our offense to step up, when we needed our run game to be on-point, it's been there. Willie has been in and out throughout the whole season, but today we were so glad he's back and carrying the load. … He's given you guys four years to look at him and know exactly what he can do."
Now it's up to Pittsburgh to show it can repeat the feat against Baltimore, which held the Steelers to only 69 and 91 rushing yards, respectively, in a pair of Pittsburgh wins in the regular season.
"It's no secret that we hate them and they hate us," said Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton. "This is going to be a great game. Whoever survives, you know it's going to be one of the ones you remember for a long, long time."
- Willie Parker