Dermontti Dawson's Hall of Fame credentials received a boost from a guy likely headed to Canton one day.
Bill Belichick, who has coached the New England Patriots to three Super Bowl victories, coached against Dawson in the 1990s when he was in Cleveland and put him in high company yesterday.
"He was one of the best players that we have ever played against at that position," said Belichick. "He had exceptional quickness; I think that really the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys that are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can't step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for [Neil] O'Donnell and those guys who played behind him."
Dawson reached the semifinal round -- 25 players -- for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week. The final 15 will be chosen next month, and a vote will be taken on those candidates. He made seven Pro Bowls, was voted first-team All-Pro six times and made the first team of the all-1990s decade in the NFL.
"The other thing that I think was a key to the Pittsburgh running game for years," Belichick continued, "is when the nose tackle or the defensive tackle is offset to the play side; if you are running to the right and the nose tackle is lined up in the center-guard gap on the right, or sometimes even on the inside shoulder of the guard; that is a very hard block for the center to get. Defensively, you feel like they should not be able to cut him off from the center position, but Dawson made that block consistently.
"He could reach to the front side of the play which enabled the Steelers to pull their guards and their tackles and get to the edge on all of those off-tackle plays that all their backs ran so well and gained so many yards on. Without him making those blocks inside, a lot of those runs for [Jerome] Bettis and [Barry] Foster would not have been able to get downhill like they did.
"As great as those Steelers' running games were over the last decade-and-a-half that I played against them, the effectiveness of the center position has had a lot to do with that. Dawson was outstanding; as well as his protection in the passing game."
No time for splits
If the Steelers don't beat the Patriots Sunday, they could find themselves in a first-place tie with Baltimore by the end of the day. The Ravens, one game behind the Steelers, play at Cincinnati.
A loss in New England would give the Steelers losses against two wild-card contenders, the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, in case they don't win their division.
The Steelers play Dallas at home before they play in Baltimore Dec. 14, then finish up at Tennessee and home to Cleveland.
"This is that stretch of the year that you can't afford to split," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "You've got to play great football. This is when the veterans need to step up and the rookies need to see what it's about. Because the AFC is so tight, so many teams are separated by a game or half a game, or two games, you really can't afford to have that lull right now. That's why this game is so important to us as I'm sure it is to the Patriots as well."
Only three Steelers did not practice yesterday: Defensive end Brett Keisel (knee), offensive tackle Marvel Smith (back) and running back Willie Parker (knee). Deshea Townsend, who missed the past two games and was declared as doubtful by coach Mike Tomlin Tuesday, returned to practice. Keisel and Smith will not play. Tomlin listed Parker as questionable with swelling in his injured knee.
Talk about stingy ...
The Steelers have allowed an average of 66.5 yards rushing per game on defense, which would break their single-season record of 74.7 in 2001.
Rounding out their top five defenses against the run: 79.3 in 1943 as the Steagles, 82.4 in '97, 82.6 in '95 and 84.7 in the strike-shortened season of '82.