Steelers' running game dominating defenses

OWINGS MILLS -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' running game represents the perfect storm. Fast Willie Parker, the once-unheralded free agent whose nickname makes him sound like a jazz musician, has emerged as a rare commodity in Pittsburgh: a home-run threat who has ably replaced starter Duce Staley.

A hard-nosed offensive line, gritty fullback Dan Kreider and burly running back Jerome Bettis thrive on the rougher aspect of football. It's the kind of bare-knuckled style that leaves cuts and bruises.

Heading into Monday night's game against the Baltimore Ravens (2-4), the Steelers (4-2) are in complete sync and rank third in rushing in the AFC. It's up to a Ravens defense that will be without injured middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed to disrupt that backfield rhythm.

"It's nice to have that stable of running backs," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said in a Wednesday conference call with Baltimore reporters. "We are a team that likes to run the football, and you need more than one guy. They are taking a very selfless approach."

Highly productive, too.

In a 27-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals where the defending AFC North champions asserted that they are still the team to beat in the division, the Steelers rushed for a season-high 221 yards on 47 carries. Parker gained 131 yards and Bettis rumbled for 56 more.

Afterward, Bettis aptly described the multi-faceted style with a baseball analogy.

"Willie is definitely our home-run hitter," said Bettis, the NFL's fourth all-time leading rusher with 13,408 yards and 83 touchdowns. "You can call me our bunter or our sacrifice-fly guy."

With either runner, it's been a series of hits. They've combined for the NFL's seventh-ranked running game with a 136.3 average.

Under Cowher, the Steelers have almost always been big believers in the benefits of the run. This year is no exception with Parker doing most of the damage with 539 yards. After running it 61 percent of the time last season, they're running 59.6 percent this year.

In 2005 games where they've rushed for 135 yards or more, they're 3-0. They won by a combined total of 88-27 with a 71.4 run percentage.

"I certainly believe in that," Cowher said. "I think it is something that has to be your foundation. I believe in balance, too. I think that running the football is something that you can not just turn on. It's a mentality."

The Steelers' philosophy is borne out by their track record under Cowher. His teams have the most rushing yards in the NFL -- 28,906 yards on 7,019 attempts for a 4.1 average -- since he was named coach in 1992.

Under Cowher, the Steelers are 120-28 (.811) in games where they outrush opponents. They're 85-6-1 (.929) with at least 35 runs. And they're 52-9 with less than 25 passes.

Despite Pittsburgh throwing only 128 passes -- fewest in the NFL -- quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with a 120.7 passer rating and has nine touchdowns and one interception.

"As you watch us play if we can get the lead, then we like to think we can turn to the running game to make it a short game and a safe game," Cowher said, "and not run the risk of throwing the ball."

In addition to being a long time contributor to RavensInsider, Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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