Motivated RB a Steelers concern

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> A defense that's struggled to stop the run lately was surprised to learn that Casey Hampton had been selected to the Pro Bowl. <br><br> Steelers Coach Bill Cowher was asked if this was the better of Hampton's two full-time seasons as the team's starting nose tackle.

"It's hard to say," Cowher said. "We've got two good runners coming in here these next two weeks and we kind of challenged him with that."

Next week, the Steelers travel to Baltimore to face the NFL's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis. Today, they'll host the San Diego Chargers and the league's leader in total yards from scrimmage, LaDainian Tomlinson.

How good is Tomlinson?

"The guy is the most remarkable running back I have ever seen in my career," said Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer, a veteran of 27 NFL seasons, taking him back to 1976.

"In my view," Schottenheimer continued, "he's a combination of Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. He takes the best qualities from those two guys. He is absolutely remarkable."

Tomlinson (5-10, 221) is in his third and best NFL season. His 1,311 rushing yards are sixth best in the NFL, but he also has 86 receptions (second to Hines Ward in the AFC) to give him a league-leading 2,011 yards from scrimmage for a team with a 3-11 record.

Tomlinson is the San Diego Chargers, but he is not in the Pro Bowl. Hampton is, which prompts the inevitable question: Who will be more pumped up for this game - the 5-9 Steelers' run defense or Tomlinson?

Because of its recent struggles, it had better be the Steelers' run defense. Last week, 30-year-old Curtis Martin ran for 174 yards - his highest total in over three years - in the Steelers' 6-0 loss to the New York Jets. The previous week, the Steelers were gouged for 102 first-half yards by the Oakland Raiders. In their last five games, the Steelers have allowed opponents 4.6 yards per carry.

In games in which the Steelers have been out-rushed this season, they are 1-5, with the only win coming against the Arizona Cardinals.

Tomlinson, despite his dreadful surrounding cast, has helped the Chargers out-rush six opponents this season. In those games, they are 3-3.

"He's one of those backs who can control the whole ball game. He's probably 85 percent of their offense," said Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior. "With the line he has right now he's doing a helluva job. I'd hate to see him with a line that's been together and works good together. It's kind of scary."

Last week, the Chargers were down to only one starting lineman from their opening-day unit. But left guard Kelvin Garmon is expected to be re-joined today by left tackle Damion McIntosh. Still, the top nine members of the Chargers' offensive line have missed 35 games because of injuries. Right tackle Courtney Van Buren will miss game No. 36 today.

Steelers chairman Dan Rooney last week lamented "a very disappointing season" but excused it by saying "we did get our offensive line hurt, which is tough." The Steelers have lost only one player, Marvel Smith, for a significant period of time. What would Rooney say about real line problems, such as those experienced by the Chargers?

A similarly hypothetical question was put to Schottenheimer: What would Tomlinson do behind a healthy and experienced line?

"You don't have to block it real clean to give him a chance to run off with it because he has great instincts and vision. He has the ability to get to full speed in one step," Schottenheimer said. "If you take the best of Payton and Barry Sanders and just imagine in your mind, because I have thought about it for quite some time, and it has only been particularly over the course of the last two or three weeks, that unequivocally I have said he is the absolute best running back I have ever seen."

But by his peers, Tomlinson isn't even considered among the top four backs in his conference. Suffice to say, Tomlinson will be highly motivated today for an otherwise meaningless game. The Steelers' coaching staff only hopes Hampton and the rest of the underachieving run defense can keep up.

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