- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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PITTSBURGH -- After their Dec. 4 victory over the Steelers, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson joked about the torch passing in the AFC North and how the change was like going from black-and-white television to color, obviously a slap at the Steelers' conservative running style.
Those comments were on the tongues of Steelers players following their 31-17 victory Sunday in the AFC wild-card round. While the Steelers customarily pound opponents with running plays, they have some of the most creative gadget plays in football. Not since Dan Reeves' days in Denver or maybe Don Coryell's days in San Diego has an offense come up with such creative trickery.
The colorful dagger Sunday was an across-the-field throwback by Antwaan Randle El following a direct snap from center. The throwback went to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The right side of the Bengals' secondary converged on Roethlisberger, leaving Cedrick Wilson wide open for an easy touchdown pass.
"Anytime you got a great run game and people try to take out your run, it's going to open things up for the passing game," said Hines Ward, who was also an option on the play.
Ward understands. Even though he's one of the game's most complete receivers, he was a college quarterback. So was Randle El. Their presence has enabled current offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, the current Bills coach, to design plays rarely seen on a normal Sunday. As Johnson found out, some colorful things can be done on what appears to be a black-and-white screen.
Gadget or trick plays have been part of the NFL landscape for decades. For physical teams such as the Steelers, they are great diversions from the routine. Mike Ditka used to charge up his Chicago Bears teams of the mid-1980s by inserting defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry as a fullback and sometimes work some trick plays around him.
The Steelers go into each game with four or five trick plays at their disposal. It could be anything from Randle El working option plays from direct snaps near the goal line to Jerome Bettis working a halfback option.
On Sunday, Bettis threw a halfback option pass into the end zone to tight end Heath Miller, but the throw was wobbly and low, and went incomplete.
"That's part of their game and part of their attack," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "They've done them for years. I remember I was in Tampa Bay and Jerome Bettis threw a touchdown pass on a big play and they beat us down there. They've got guys who can do it. Randle El gives them an added dimension. Hines Ward is able to throw the ball. They do a lot of things.
"That's one of the things when you are a power team, you can keep people from pursuing with those gadget plays. They do a good job of it."
The situation was perfect for a gadget Sunday. The Steelers led 21-17 in the third quarter and had the momentum. With the lead and a third-and-3 on their 43-yard line, the Steelers felt they were in position to make a gamble that couldn't hurt. Had they failed, they could have punted and pinned the Bengals in bad field position. Had they succeeded, they would put the dagger in the Bengals.
"We talked about it before the game, and we felt if we had a third-and-5 or less, it would be a good place to run it," Whisenhunt said. "Once we got the ball past midfield, I said, 'If we get a third down in this situation, [we're] going to call it.'"
They've worked on this play since training camp. As it unfolded, though, it didn't look like it did in practice because Randle El scrambled too far to his right.
"Luckily, I played possum, and he started running," Roethlisberger said. "So I am sitting there waiting for Antwaan to throw me the ball. He went about 10 feet further than he was supposed to. The ball seemed like it was in the air forever. When I was catching the ball, I saw a bunch of guys running down the field and I knew they were in man coverage."
Not only was Ward open on a crossing route, but Wilson was open deeper. Jokingly, Roethlisberger said he chose Wilson over Ward because he had thrown enough touchdown passes to Ward. Ward joked that Roethlisberger always tends to go for the deeper receiver, fitting his gunslinging nature.
"I wasn't sure if Hines was going to box him out and catch it anyway," Roethlisberger said. "But he threw a good block and got Cedrick the touchdown."
Having two ex-quarterbacks as wide receivers does open the playbook to creativity. There were times during Mularkey days as offensive coordinator when the Steelers had forms of the Delaware Wing-T in which they had plenty of funky reverses and passes to call.
No team relies on the run as much as the Steelers. They ran the ball a league-high 57.2 percent of the time. Their 549 carries were also a league high. By running the ball so successfully, it takes a lot of pressure off Roethlisberger and allows him to grow and become calmer in the pocket each week. Often, Roethlisberger is asked to throw fewer than 15 passes per game.
"I guess you look at the Steelers to pound it, pound it, pass on third down, and convert on third down. But every now and then, you see a couple of trick plays," Ward said. "We've got Antwaan, and we've got some right times to call them."
Whether it's a reserve or a direct snap to a receiver or a pass from Bettis, the Steelers mix simple power with a flash of creativity. Just don't call them too conservative.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
The Steelers have a reputation for being conservative on offense, but no team rolls out more gadget plays.