PITTSBURGH – As Mike Holmgren watched the life sucked from his team one grinding minute after another Sunday, the Seattle coach felt a familiar pang of helplessness. Almost one year ago, he'd seen the Chicago Bears devour his Seahawks in a game that would be a defining moment for a Super Bowl team.
On Sunday, he relived it.
Only this time, it was an AFC team announcing its legitimate claim of supremacy. If Sunday revealed anything at all, it was that Pittsburgh officially is a player amongst the NFL elite. And Holmgren was the first to concede it after Seattle's 21-0 loss to the Steelers.
"This reminded me of last year, going against Chicago and getting it handed to us," Holmgren said of last season's 37-6 loss at Soldier Field. "For those guys on (our) team that didn't realize what you need to do to compete against a team like this, a good football team, they learned it today."
It wasn't the only lesson the Steelers doled out. Despite missing four key starters – safety Troy Polamalu, defensive tackle Casey Hampton and wide receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes – Pittsburgh adjusted on the fly and paved over Seattle with a paralyzing style of ball control. In an offensive game plan that was scripted to throw a deep ball to Holmes on the third Pittsburgh play from scrimmage, the Steelers instead ended up running the football 41 times after Holmes pulled his hamstring.
More impressive was the fact that the Steelers fully expected to have Holmes right up to the end of warmups. Not only did he tweak his hamstring after Pittsburgh had submitted its active roster for the day, but the day's three active wideouts weren't aware of the situation until receivers coach Randy Fichtner pulled aside Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington just before kickoff.
"Actually, we were headed out (to the field)," Washington said. "We looked at each other and almost cussed Randy out like he was lying."
With the game plan realigning toward the run, the Steelers swallowed the ball for an astonishing 40-plus minutes, including a dominating 10-minute, 17-play drive to start the second half. That drive resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Najeh Davenport and a 14-0 lead. It was a remarkable display of scheme flexibility that paid dividends two-fold. Not only did Pittsburgh seamlessly pound the ball from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' spread scheme, but the Steelers helped minimize the amount of time a wounded defense had to sit on the field.
That the Steelers were able to adjust their game plan effectively speaks volumes about how Arians' scheme has helped shore up last season's mistake-prone offense. And it was done on the shoulders of running backs Davenport and Willie Parker, who continued to flourish despite the Steelers not having the ability to throw as many deep balls as the previous four games.
"Coach (Mike) Tomlin talks about attrition football, and we win when we play attrition football," Parker said. "That's who we are."
More accurately, that's who these Steelers can be when a game calls for it. With Arians' more wide-open scheme adopted this offseason, Pittsburgh had been able to get consistent passing production out of Ward (when healthy), Holmes and tight end Heath Miller, while spacing out running lanes for Parker and Davenport. But it wasn't until Sunday that the Steelers were locked into more of a one-dimensional mode, absolutely having to run the football in order to survive.
But Holmes' injury made that a reality, forcing the Steelers to feed Parker and Davenport and count on timely contributions from Wilson, Washington and Willie Reid – all backups at the wideout spot – to string drives together. And they did just that, showcasing the conviction of an offensive line that can still move the line of scrimmage and allow the Steelers to dictate the pace of a game.
"They showed their character today," Tomlin said. " … We knew that they were going to pack the box to stop the run because of our wideout situation. I'm sure it became obvious to them quickly that we only had three wideouts suited up. We had to pound the rock."
Four running backs and 163 yards later, the Steelers seized a win balanced out by an opportunistic and well-rested defense that held Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to 13 of 27 passing and allowed Shaun Alexander only 25 yards on 11 carries. Moreover, the Pittsburgh offense got it done shorthanded, and playing a team that had been billed as having one of the NFC's best defenses.
"It was an opportunity either to come out and show that when one guy goes down that it doesn't matter, no matter who he is – or it was an opportunity to show that Hines and Santonio were all we had," Washington said. "Me, Cedrick and Willie took great pride in coming out and showing the rest of this city and the rest of this league that those aren't the only guys we have."
It's a defining moment that comes as the Steelers head into their bye this week with an opportunity to get healthy just in time for the meat of their AFC schedule. Following the bye, the Steelers have road games against Denver and Cincinnati and a home tilt with Baltimore on tap. But sitting at 4-1, the team with question-marks on offense and defense now occupies the driver's seat in the brutal AFC North.
"We're showing people that we're riding with coach Tomlin," Parker said. "Especially after last week's loss (to Arizona), which was kind of embarrassing. This team is just getting started."