Tough sledding

PITTSBURGH – The winner of the last two San Diego Chargers-Pittsburgh Steelers games was the team that rushed for over 100 yards. It wasn't pretty; it wasn't easy.

In a 23-13 win in 2006, the Chargers gained 119 yards on 31 carries.

In a 24-22 win in 2005, the Steelers gained 104 yards on 32 carries.

Overall, the two teams ran the ball 102 times at a 3.5 per-carry clip.

This year, the 6-3 Steelers may choose to bypass the run altogether and throw every down. It's what their coordinator and quarterback seemingly want. And the weather's expected to be blustery, so all the merrier for the passing enthusiasts.

Casey Hampton, though, knows the 4-5 Chargers will come at him. The Steelers' nose tackle knows the Chargers aren't about to throw up their hands with LaDainian Tomlinson in their backfield.

"I'll play twice as many snaps as I did last game," said Hampton. "I know they'll try to run the ball."

All joking aside, the Steelers will try to run the ball as well. And the Chargers' brick wall starts with their nose tackle, too. If Hampton hasn't been on the Pro Bowl field at nose tackle for the AFC the last three years, the Chargers' Jamal Williams has.

The two have been to the last three Pro Bowls and are considered the best in the NFL. They've also come to define a budding rivalry between two of the AFC's top contenders over the last five years. It's a physical pairing, although both teams are having trouble running the ball these days.

Tomlinson led the NFL in rushing last year, but suffered from turf toe early in the season and is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. The Chargers are 25th in the league in rushing, just behind the Steelers.

"I think he's still the same running back," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said of Tomlinson. "You can tell they're close to getting him untracked and breaking big ones."

Tomlinson did rush for 105 yards against New Orleans two games ago. But last week, he gained only 78 yards on 22 carries against Kansas City, which entered the game allowing 5.4 yards per carry.

The Steelers struggled similarly. They managed only 55 yards rushing at home against the Colts. Willie Parker returns to the lineup this week, but will wear a shoulder harness to protect the shoulder he injured two weeks ago. The Steelers might just look to pass against a Chargers defense that ranks dead last in pass yardage allowed per game.

If the Steelers do attack the Chargers on the ground, they'll do so against a healthy Williams, Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky. The Chargers run a 3-4, but defensive coordinator Ron Rivera – hired during the bye two weeks ago – is using more 4-3 tendencies, particularly with outside linebacker Shawne Merriman on injured reserve.

"It's still a 3-4 defense, but it's an 3-4 under defense," said Steelers center Justin Hartwig. "We understand what the tendencies are under the new coordinator as opposed to the old one. We definitely know there's going to be some changes, and we saw some of that in the Chiefs game."

Does Williams play nose tackle differently in either alignment?

"He'll still be either head up or shaded over me the whole time," Hartwig said. "He causes big problems. He's consistently getting push into the backfield. He'll grab the centers and launch them. He's that big and powerful of a guy. He can physically throw people on the ground. Not all nose tackles can do that, but I've seen him do some pretty impressive things on film."

"Their front four guys are solid up front," said Hines Ward. "They're the best in the business, so it starts up front with our offensive line. For us to get to where we want to go, win this game, it's going to start with those guys controlling their front four."

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