PITTSBURGH – In the Pittsburgh Steelers' team meeting room is a tote board with all of the stats that coaches like to use as markers of goals reached and otherwise. The numbers usually remain intact for the season as a form of motivation.
Before Sunday's 21-9 win over the Chicago Bears, Steelers coach Bill Cowher erased all of those numbers. He obliterated the board.
"We wiped the slate clean and started over," said guard Kendal Simmons. "We looked at this as Week One -- desperation time."
The Steelers' offensive line reflected that desperation. Alan Faneca looked like the Alan Faneca of old and the rest followed, particularly Jerome Bettis, who gained 101 yards in the mud and slop and snow to re-establish the Steelers as a contender down the stretch.
Bettis and the offensive line put the hammer down on a Bears defense that came into the game ranked No. 1 in the NFL. But by early in the second half, the Bears looked like they wanted no part of tackling Bettis.
"We didn't make many errors today up front," said Faneca. "And I think the coaches put us in a good game plan. They put us in a spot to succeed."
The key play of the game plan was executed into the key play of the game. The Steelers hoped to slow the aggressive and speedy Bears defenders right off the bat, so they wanted to hit them early with Fast Willie Parker.
"We knew going into the game our second play was going to be the screen play," said Parker. "So we took a lot of their aggressiveness away early. They were just sitting back after that thinking: ‘What are they going to do to us next? What are they going to do to us next?' We just played our type of game today."
By that, Parker meant the Steelers slammed it up the gut behind a motivated and confident offensive line. But first, there was the screen pass.
"Urlacher was sitting right there but Jeff (Hartings) came and just moved him out of the way just so quick," Parker said. "And I was like, oh, this is a touchdown. Then Hines (Ward) blocked the safety. If (Nathan) Vasher didn't have the speed he has, that was a touchdown."
It did gain 45 yards to set up a 14-yard touchdown pass to Ward. From there, the Steelers could play their type of game. A snowstorm hit early in the second half and Bettis and the offensive line did the rest.
Check that: Bettis and the much-maligned offensive line did the rest.
"I think sometimes criticism is warranted whether you like it or not," said Hartings. "This is a business where you evaluate yourself practically every single day after practice and after games, and the last three weeks we haven't played well. That was a fact. Some of it was because of Marvel (Smith) being out and being in bad situations – being behind. But I think we just persevered. We just practiced hard this week. I think there was a lot more focus this week than there had been in the past. We knew that we couldn't lose any more games and we've got to keep that attitude. Hopefully it'll take us a long way."
The Steelers proved they could beat a big-time defense with their raw left tackle. Coming into the game, the Steelers had lost all three games Smith missed with ankle injuries. In 2003, they were 3-8 in games in which Smith didn't play more than one series. His replacement that season was Faneca; this season it's been rookie Trai Essex.
"Am I the weak link? What can I do to help this team win," was what Essex asked himself before the game. "I really went in and focused on practice this week and concentrated on my technique and on doing what I could do to help this team win."
And the load shifted like a Bettis run over a muddy field.