Reality check: Steelers must re-establish reputation in playoffs
Willie Parker runs up the middle for 13 yards against the Chargers at the Heinz Field in November. "If I was on the defensive side of the ball, I wouldn't respect the running game because we haven't been that successful this year."
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Some reputations linger long after the reality ends. General Motors as a blue-chip stock, for example. Oprah's weight loss. Baseball, America's game. Or, how about this one: The Steelers as a power running team.
That last reputation persists in pockets around the country long after the 2008 Steelers disproved it, and while perception can be reality, the playoffs bring hope to everyone, even to the grounds crew in Pittsburgh.
"We've definitely had our highs and lows running the ball," center Justin Hartwig acknowledged, "but this is the time we have to step up and get it done when we're called on."
The Steelers' running offense ranked 23rd in the NFL this season, their second-lowest standing since they joined the AFC in 1970. Willie Parker, who led the NFL in rushing last season when his fibula was broken in the penultimate game, believes defenses no longer respect the Steelers' ability to run.
"If I was on the defensive side of the ball, I wouldn't respect the running game because we haven't been that successful this year," Parker said. "So we just have to take our respect."
That lack of respect for the ground game does not bother him, he said, perhaps because it's fact-based.
"I just have to change that. It doesn't bother me at all. I came into the league with very little respect. My goal has always been to just take respect."
Parker was publicly chastised by coach Mike Tomlin when he aired his discontent for running behind two tight ends on the line of scrimmage most of the season rather than a fullback in the I-formation, a longtime staple for the Steelers. "We go away from Steelers football, Steelers mentality," Parker said Dec. 10.
Teammates have since backed him, especially his blockers. Tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon said they love the I-formation, and Hartwig and fullback Sean McHugh chimed in yesterday.
"Absolutely," was Hartwig's no-holds-barred answer. "I think when we line up in the I-formation, it's more a smashmouth mentality. I think as offensive linemen we embrace those situations."
McHugh, still listed by the Steelers as their No. 3 tight end when he has been their starting fullback for weeks, played fullback at Penn State. He believes he is more effective as a lead blocker in the backfield than on the line of scrimmage.
"I just like having a chance to get a running start at a guy, you know what I mean?" McHugh said. "For me to be a few yards deep in the backfield, you can see things a little bit easier and have a little momentum coming through."
It remains to be seen, of course, what tactic the coaches advance for Sunday's game. During their successful 2005 playoff run, they caught three opponents by surprise when they opened up with the passing game early, took a lead and then leaned heavily on the run. That worked because the reality matched the perception that the Steelers could dominate on the ground.
If a defense respects the Steelers' running game, it also helps the Steelers' play-action passing. No one knows that like a veteran wide receiver.
"We can't go out there and have a 40-20 pass-run ratio," Hines Ward said. "We have to be as balanced as we can. If the game gets out of hand, you have to pass to catch up, but we can't shy away from the running game.
"There's nothing wrong with running. If we run on first and second down and don't convert on third down, we can't put all the pressure [on the passing game] and just shy away from the running game.
"We have to keep pounding away at it, and it all starts up front and our guys know it."
And they hope the message gets to the coaching staff as well.
"We would like to think that we can run the ball when we need to," Hartwig said. "Hopefully our coaches believe in us and we can do that."
Playoffs and running the ball have gone together in Pittsburgh like black and gold, but the Steelers managed only 43 yards rushing and lost their playoff game one year ago at Heinz Field.
"If you can establish the run," McHugh said, "it's going to make your world a lot easier in the playoffs."
The Steelers want their reputation back.
The countdown to Sunday draws near. Look for a Post-Gazette special section previewing the Steelers' 2009 AFC playoff opener vs. San Diego. In the spotlight: Dick LeBeau's defense.
First Published January 8, 2009 12:00 am