O-line wearing down opposition

The Steelers RBs have benefited from an offensive line that is providing plenty of running room.

Originally Published: November 7, 2004
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- In football, as in virtually every other sport at all levels, it is pretty much the ultimate representation of pending submission.

You've seen, no doubt, the tell-tale signs: A player on his knee, sucking for air, maybe grabbing at his shirt, beaten physically and emotionally, ready to send up the white flag.

And so it was here Sunday, during a third-quarter timeout and with all four of the Philadelphia defensive linemen down on one knee and two of three linebackers also in the genuflection stance, that the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line unit knew that it had run another opponent out of Heinz Field.

With heavy emphasis on the run part of things.

"Oh, yeah, we noticed it," acknowledged Steelers standout left guard Alan Faneca when asked about the Eagles' unofficial surrender. "We were ready for the timeout to be over and I'm sure they were thinking, 'Can't we get another minute or two?' But we didn't want them to be able to catch their breath. Not at all. We wanted to keep pounding the ball at them as much as we could."

Which is precisely what Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had in mind as well. Dialed in with the running game, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to throw just 18 times in a 27-3 victory even more lopsided than the numbers, and he has yet to register more than 25 attempts in any of his six starts. The Steelers have done a magnificent job of insulating Roethlisberger with an inside power running game that has resurfaced as the preferred method of moving the ball here.

For that, credit an offensive line quintet that is imposing its will on opponents, carving out cavernous holes for whoever lines up in the tailback spot.

It was not, truth be told, a unit highly regarded entering this season. The line was one of the Steelers' most glaring weaknesses in 2003, in part because of injuries that forced line coach Russ Grimm to shuffle bodies all over the place (three-time Pro Bowl guard Faneca had to move to left tackle at one point), but also because the group never really got into the kind of cohesive rhythm required of blockers.

When starting right guard Kendall Simmons suffered a season-ending knee injury in camp, nudging the inexperienced Keydrick Vincent into the lineup, it appeared as if this season might be no better than last. But the line, as evidenced by the outcomes of the last two weeks, has played exceedingly well, and its shared confidence is now palpable.

"We know coming in now," Vincent said, "exactly what we're going to do. Sometimes, you get into a situation where the coaches tell you they're going to run, and then the game turns a certain way and they abandon (the run). That hasn't happened to us yet in a game this year. A lot of the confidence we have right now is because the coaches are so confident in us. They're calling running plays again and again and again. We love it."

Pittsburgh backs, who are finding huge holes in which to maneuver, also have to love a unit that includes left tackle Marvel Smith, right tackle Oliver Ross and center Jeff Hartings. Tailback Jerome Bettis, who ran for 149 yards Sunday, noted that he was often 3 or 4 yards upfield before he encountered initial contact.

It's an NFL truism that seemingly will never change: Run the ball on offense, stop the run defensively and you will win a lot more games than you lose. In topping undefeated opponents each of the last two weeks, the Steelers have certainly validated the formula.

Pittsburgh out-rushed the New England Patriots and the Eagles by a remarkable margin of 473-28, posted a yawning 149-90 advantage in total snaps and had an incredible lead in time of possession of nearly 25 minutes. Little wonder the Steelers outscored the Pats and Eagles by a 61-23 count.

We know coming in now exactly what we're going to do. Sometimes, you get into a situation where the coaches tell you they're going to run, and then the game turns a certain way and they abandon (the run). That hasn't happened to us yet in a game this year.
OL Keydrick Vincent

Through the first half of the '04 season, the Steelers now have a positive rushing game differential of 79.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh entered Sunday's showdown against the Eagles statistically ranked No. 4 in rushing offense and third in rushing defense. Those standings will probably be enhanced following Sunday's victory.

With his team now riding a six-game winning streak, coach Bill Cowher was quick to emphasize on Sunday evening the play of the offensive line. In fact, his praise for the unit came in his opening remarks, and he spent much of his press conference dealing with the importance of the re-energized unit.

Asked if the Steelers did anything special in game-planning to contain Philadelphia wide receiver Terrell Owens, who entered the contest with nine touchdown catches, Cowher used the question to get in another plug for his offensive line.

"No, it was called run left and run right on offense," Cowher said. "We controlled the clock. That's the best defense. The best thing we had going for us on defense today was our running game."

And with apologies to Bettis, the best thing the running game had going for it was a line that continues to knock defenders off the ball.

And to their knees as well.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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