Any story line by which the Steelers' defense confronts one of the NFL's marquee running backs and essentially brings the marquee crashing down on the poor man's head, breaking his big name and swelling rep into multiple, jagged pieces, has long since been turned into a common narrative.
That somebody's thought-to-be-virtually-unstoppable thoroughbred comes up well short of the 100-yard threshold for advanced competence seems a tale as old as time around here, because no one has run for 100 against the Steelers this year, and only three running backs have done so in the past 83 games, but yesterday had a high probability of being very different.
"They can prepare you for it all week," said Larry Foote about yesterday's arrival of San Diego's Darren Sproles, a flash of heat lightning that had blinded five consecutive Chargers opponents down the stretch and into the AFC playoffs, "but they can't simulate the kind of speed and quickness and put it in your face like he does."
The awkward, injury-triggered transition in San Diego from LaDainian Tomlinson to Sproles as the Chargers' primary horse had triggered nothing less than a rupture in the balance of power in the conference. As Denver and Indianapolis crumpled down the stretch, the Chargers scored more rushing touchdowns in the past two games (eight) than they had in the first 15 (seven). Sproles had as many 100-yard games in the past two (two) as Tomlinson had in 15.
"He's an extremely gifted player," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He got loose on us once there near the end, but otherwise we did pretty well."
And he got loose for 63 yards on a kickoff return and 274 from all purposes, but not where it might have allowed the Chargers to dictate tempo.
Sproles ran the ball 11 times yesterday, all of 'em in the first half.
He gained 1, then 3, then 2, then 1. He squirted for 8 on San Diego's third possession, then 4 on the next play. After that, he gained 1, then 1, then minus-1, then minus-5, then zero. On nine of those 11 plays, essentially, the Steelers told him no.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.
"Coming in that's what we wanted to concentrate on," linebacker James Harrison said. "We didn't want him doing what he did against Indianapolis [328 all-purpose yards and the winning overtime touchdown]. We wanted to put the game in the hands of [Philip] Rivers and if we did that we thought we'd have a good chance."
There was a price to be paid for this approach, but it turned out to be nominal.
Rivers drilled Vincent Jackson on an exquisite 41-yard post to put the Chargers up, 7-0, just two minutes in, and tight end Antonio Gates did some damage on crossing routes, but mostly in the first half. With only two minutes left in the game and the Steelers goofing around with an 18-point lead, Sproles took a Rivers pass down the middle, split the safeties and raced to the end zone with a perfunctory 62-yard touchdown reception.
But between those first two minutes and those last two, Sproles was virtually immobilized by the ever-undervalued quickness of people such as Foote and James Farrior, of Keisel and Aaron Smith. It's not terribly amazing to see even Sproles run down by Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, players whose explosiveness is their very aura, but the Steelers found their way into the AFC championship game because of how smart and quick and accomplished they were in the center of their base defense and at its leading edges.
"I can't say enough about the Steelers," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. "They are an outstanding football team. Pittsburgh gives you a lot of problems. Truly as you're watching them and realize what they've done -- there's only two or three teams in this league that play defense like that, Baltimore and Pittsburgh and they play next week."
It's hard to overstate anything when you gain 15 yards on the ground, the fewest a Steelers team has ever allowed in a long, glorious postseason history. The Chargers had one rushing first down. One.
"That defense," said Sproles, "is the real deal."
Four touchdowns came down after the Steelers went ahead, 21-10, with a 77-yard, 13-play drive that swallowed more than half of the third quarter, but the game was practically in the books even then. When the Steelers get to 20 points, they're 10-1. When they win the turnover issue, they're 9-0, and the critical takeaway yesterday was caused by Keisel, who batted a Rivers pass into a jump ball that Foote came down with at the edge of the Steelers' red zone.
"I rolled over a little and took it from James [Harrison]," Foote laughed. "He makes enough plays."
All of Dick LeBeau's defenders seem to have made enough plays to qualify for a Super Bowl, but all it got them yesterday was a seven-day wait until they'll have to prove it again.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.