Steelers Notebook: Run game found room vs. Chargers in spread

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Don't get too enamored with that I-formation, two-back stuff the Steelers used to run the ball successfully against the Cleveland Browns.

They did just the opposite in the first meeting with the San Diego Chargers, and Willie Parker had the same amount of success.

"It was similar to what we've been doing the whole season -- spreading things out," center Justin Hartwig said of the Nov. 16 game at Heinz Field.

Parker, who had 116 yards and a 34-yard touchdown run in the regular-season finale against the Browns, had 115 yards on 25 carries against the Chargers, including 79 yards on 14 carries in the second half.

What's more, Parker ran six times for 30 yards on the winning scoring drive and even had a 4-yard touchdown run negated by a holding penalty against H-back Sean McHugh, forcing Jeff Reed to kick a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.

Most of the time, the Steelers used spread formations with three wide receivers and one running back, most notably in their no-huddle offense at the end of the game.

"It was a nice mixture [of run and pass]," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said yesterday. "It was a six-minute drive, it wasn't a two-minute situation, and we were able to stay with the run and the pass. We were able to stay very well-balanced and, when we got down there, able to knock it in."

It was another example, Arians said, of having success running the ball without a fullback. And the offense will need some of that Sunday against the Chargers.

The Steelers averaged just 105.6 yards rushing per game in the regular season, their lowest average of any previous playoff team in franchise history. That is 8 yards per game fewer than the previous low held by their 1989 team, which averaged 113.6 yards rushing per game.

"I think we came off the ball pretty well and the footing was really bad in the first game," Hartwig said. "The field was really sloppy. Everybody was sliding all over the place. It was hard to keep our footing. We've watched film of [San Diego] since then and they're playing a lot faster. Probably the surface had a lot to do with it."

Lack of sacks

After getting 18 sacks in the first nine games, the Chargers have had only 12 in the past eight games under new defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, including just one in the playoff victory against the Indianapolis Colts.

But four of those sacks came in the first meeting against Ben Roethlisberger -- two by defensive end Jacques Cesaire, the only two he had all season.

"They brought quite a bit of pressure," Roethlisberger said. "We expect the same thing. That's kind of been their M.O. recently -- bringing people and using their athletes in the secondary to cover. We have to be ready for it as a line and as a unit. We are going to have to be ready for everything."

Coach Mike Tomlin said the Chargers have had to learn how to rush the passer without Pro Bowl outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who has been on injured reserve since the second week of the season. Merriman has 39.5 sacks in three seasons.

"I think that when you lose a guy the caliber of Shawne Merriman, and you are then moving guys around, you've got to learn to find your mojo, if you will," Tomlin said. "Over the course of time, they have learned to do that -- just like we have learned how to play without Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons."

Linebackers make history

Despite combining for only two sacks in the final three games, James Harrison (16) and LaMarr Woodley (11.5) had the fifth-most sacks by a linebacker duo since the NFL began keeping such official statistics in 1982.

Their total of 27.5 sacks -- most in franchise history -- was just one shy of tying the league record set by Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling of the New Orleans Saints in 1991 and tied by Merriman and Shaun Phillips in 2006.

Woodley, though, did not have a sack in the final four games.

"Sacks are just that -- they're not a measure of performance of an individual or a unit, for that matter," Tomlin said. "What we ask from him and ask from everybody is consistent pressure, and he's provided that. There's been no dip in his performance whatsoever. Production, yes, in terms of sacks. But he's playing well and playing at a high level."

Quick hits

The Steelers have the lowest-ranked offense of the remaining playoff teams (No. 22), but they have faced six of the top eight defenses, including No. 2 Baltimore twice. The others are Philadelphia (3) Washington (4), New York Giants (5), Tennessee (7) and Dallas (8). ... Free safety Ryan Clark, who missed the final game of the regular season with another dislocation of his right shoulder, has practiced all week and is ready to go. "He appears to be fine," Tomlin said. "Of course he hasn't had to hit anyone this week."



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