Steelers running on full

January 13, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The game had just ended, and Cleveland Browns defensive end Rob Burnett was exhausted. He had been pushed, bounced and run ragged.

"Their running game is relentless," Burnett said after the Pittsburgh Steelers ran for 238 yards, including 133 by Barry Foster, in a 29-9 divisional win over Cleveland on Saturday. "First they give you that slick Barry Foster, and then comes Bam Morris, who is 17 pounds heavier. And then leading the way is that monster John L. Williams at fullback. They're tough, man, real tough."

The Steelers' running game, No. 1 in the NFL, is befitting of the city's blue-collar image and upholds a tradition that started in 1936 when Pittsburgh's first-ever draft pick was a Notre Dame running back named Bill Shakespeare.

When Pittsburgh meets the San Diego Chargers on Sunday for the AFC championship, there is no question that the Steelers will present the Chargers with a punishing, clock-controlling running game, supplemented by cautious passing.

"Think about it," said Williams, who spent eight years as a premier back in Seattle before joining Pittsburgh as a free agent this season. "At the end of the game, you don't have one guy who has been doing all the work and is tired. It takes a toll out of one guy. We have fresh legs, which makes it a whole lot easier to make the extra yard or take the extra step.

"The thing is we have the largest depth with Barry and Bam and myself. And we might have two guys in the backfield who do two different things on every down, and that's tough for a defense."

The Steelers' three prime-time backs combined for nearly all of ,, the team's league-leading 2,180 yards rushing and 136.3 per-game average, the first time Pittsburgh led the league since the days of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier.

Foster, though, is the central figure of the offense. The fifth-year runner from Arkansas had 851 yards on 216 carries during the regular season. That was expected.

The real surprise was Morris, the team's third-round pick out of Texas Tech, who had 836 yards on 198 carries.

When Foster was injured on the first play against the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 16, Morris got the call. The next week he set a team record for rushing by a rookie with 146 yards against the New York Giants.

Williams carried just 68 times, but gained 317 yards, a 4.7 average. He came to Pittsburgh knowing he would not be the feature back, to be used primarily as a blocker. The Steelers got a bonus when Williams ended the season as their leading receiver with 51 catches.

"Barry is the guy who gives us the impetus," offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt said. "Bam comes in to give him a breather. Barry has the expertise, the experience to run this offense. Bam is in the learning stages and has done a [fine] job with it.

"A lot of coaches go a lifetime and never attain that type of game," added Erhardt, a ground-oriented coach who helped the Giants win two Super Bowls with that approach. "It's the best running game I've had from the standpoint of the power game."

The Steelers' offense took a lot of criticism earlier in the year because it lacked a strong-armed quarterback and its style was ugly. But since quarterback Neil O'Donnell has improved over the last half of the season, the running game is clicking better than ever.

Pittsburgh also has one of the best offensive lines in the game led by All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson, tackles John Jackson and Leon Searcy and guards Duval Love -- who made the Pro Bowl -- and Justin Strzelczyk.

"I don't think it's a personality," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of what has become the Steelers' offensive identity. "I think it's a will. We are committed to running the football. We take great pride in doing that.

"We've been ridiculed throughout the year for not being pretty or not being able to do this or do that. We take pride in being a tough, physical football team, and there's no question that starts with the people up front."

Stopping Pittsburgh's running game will be a major challenge for San Diego, which will be without defensive tackle Shawn Lee, who injured his left knee in Sunday's 22-21 win over the Miami Dolphins and underwent arthroscopic surgery Monday.

John Parrella likely will start in place of Lee, but the Chargers could rotate in others such as Les Miller or third-year pro Reggie White, who is from Baltimore.

At 300 pounds, Lee is an integral part of San Diego's run defense, and he had a career-high 6 1/2 sacks this season.

"It'll be a little bit more of a challenge," said Chargers coach Bobby Ross. "Shawn's a strong run defender, but if it ends up being Parrella, he's played an awful lot for us. The other factor is, maybe some other guys have to step it up a little bit."

ON THE RUN

Barry Foster, Bam Morris and John L. Williams have given the Pittsburgh Steelers the NFL's top-ranked running attack.

Opponent ......... No. ... Yds. ... Avg.

Dallas ........... 17 .... 55 ... 3.2

at Cleveland ..... 38 ... 116 ... 3.1

Indianapolis ..... 45 ... 261 ... 5.8

at Seattle ....... 30 ... 131 ... 4.4

Houston .......... 44 ... 215 ... 4.9

Cincinnati ....... 30 ... 114 ... 3.8

at N.Y. Giants ... 36 ... 175 ... 4.9

at Arizona ....... 20 .... 85 ... 4.3

at Houston ....... 34 ... 111 ... 3.3

Buffalo .......... 26 .... 86 ... 3.3

Miami ............ 31 .... 81 ... 2.6

at L.A. Raiders .. 39 ... 175 ... 4.5

at Cincinnati .... 47 ... 185 ... 3.9

Philadelphia ..... 39 ... 124 ... 3.2

Cleveland ........ 41 ... 123 ... 3.0

at San Diego ..... 29 ... 136 ... 4.7

Cleveland ........ 51 ... 238 ... 4.7

Totals .......... 597 .. 2411 ... 4.0

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) vs. San Diego Chargers (12-5)

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

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