As tests go, it's a Mickey Mouse special. On the day before each game, Pittsburgh Steeler coaches give their players a short game-plan questionnaire, one that requires those tested to graph specific assignments and identify plays and formations. The questions vary depending on one's position, and the ninth and final one on last week's quiz for offensive linemen was a gimme: What do we plan to do on the line of scrimmage?
The correct answer—not only for Sunday's game against the San Diego Chargers but also for any game—was obvious: Control the line, knock defenders off the ball and keep firing until you no longer see the fight in their eyes. It's a formula that helped the Steelers become the AFC's dominant team last season but one they failed to adhere to when San Diego edged Pittsburgh in last January's AFC Championship Game. On Sunday, with a little revenge and a lot of self-preservation on their minds, the Steelers aced the test in the trenches and powered their way to a 31-16 victory in the rematch at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium.
In producing their first resounding victory of 1995, the Steelers proved that reports of their demise were premature. Pittsburgh confronted a crisis-in-the-making going into Sunday's game: It had a 2-2 record after an embarrassing 44-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings the previous week, and its best player, All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson, remained on the shelf with a possible season-ending injury. So the Steelers went back to basics—a power running attack and an aggressive, big-play-minded defense. "That's just what we needed," Pittsburgh tackle John Jackson said as he walked off the field, his uniform soaked in sweat. "The giant just woke up."
It remains to be seen if the Steelers can take the giant step they fell short of making last season. But if Pittsburgh does use Sunday's victory as a springboard to Super Bowl XXX, the record should show that the giant was awakened by 5'10", 195-pound halfback Erric Pegram, known affectionately to teammates as Teen Wolf.
The nickname was given to Pegram by former Atlanta Falcon coach Jerry Glanville because Pegram's chest...and back...and arms...and neck are covered with more body hair than is found in most biker bars. Pegram shaves his arms and the back of his neck every few days in the shower, and he still leads the league in naturally produced sunblock. He finds it odd that no one in his family—including fraternal twin Derric, a hairstylist in Dallas—has much body hair. "I remember in high school looking in the mirror and wishing I had hair on my chest, and all of a sudden—wham!" Pegram says. "I said, 'Wait a minute. God. Uh, God. I didn't mean that much hair!' "
Pegram, 26, is not only good-natured about his surplus of shag, but he is also a damn good runner. He gained 95 yards on 23 carries on Sunday in his first start as a Steeler, and opponents can expect to see more of him. When Pittsburgh traded temperamental running back Barry Foster to the Carolina Panthers in May, Foster's heir apparent was second-year runner Bam Morris, a 6-foot, 245-pound load. But Morris was disappointing in the first four games, and coach Bill Cowher decided to replace him with the hair apparent—Pegram, a former Falcon whose free-agent signing with Pittsburgh last spring attracted virtually no attention. "I was lost in the wash," says Pegram, who gained 1,185 yards on 292 carries for the Falcons in 1993 but was used less (103 carries, 358 yards) by first-year coach June Jones last season.
Pegram resurfaced on Sunday as the Steelers, who threw 54 times against the Chargers in the AFC title game, served immediate notice that things would be different this time; they would end up trying only 21 passes while rushing 39 times. Pegram ran for five yards on the first play from scrimmage and 17 on the next, and his improvisational cutback off an intended halfback-option pass set up Morris's one-yard touchdown run six minutes into the game. Shifty enough to slither through clotted running lanes and tough enough to take on tacklers, Pegram adds a new twist to the straightforward Steeler attack. "He has great vision, and if you overpursue, he'll find another hole," Charger defensive end Chris Mims said after Sunday's game. "He made their running game a lot more dangerous than it has been."
The danger also returned to the Steeler defense. While the offense was losing the ball at an alarming rate—Pittsburgh's league-high 17 turnovers in its first four games matched its 1994 regular-season total—the defense, particularly the secondary, had been reeling because of Woodson's absence. Last Friday safeties Carnell Lake and Darren Perry admitted they had been less aggressive and more paranoid about the long ball since Woodson got hurt. Woodson was worried, too. A day after the Steelers were humiliated by the Vikings, he stormed into the training room and told several teammates, "No one should be in here getting treatment because none of y'all did——out there on the field."
Reparations were made in a big way against the Chargers. Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays, both starting full time at cornerback for the first time in their careers, intercepted two passes apiece, with each converting his first pick into a touchdown as Pittsburgh stormed to a 21-0 lead. Woodson, who joined his teammates on the sidelines for the first time since his injury, noted afterward, "There was a more aggressive mentality out there today."
That the aggression produced a victory over the Chargers proved to be cathartic for the Steelers, who were still stinging from last January's 17-13 loss. All of the San Diego title-game heroes were there, and each had his troubles. Linebacker Junior Seau reaggravated the right hamstring pull that had plagued him in the exhibition season and left early in the second quarter. Linebacker Dennis Gibson, who saved the Charger playoff victory when he batted away a ball thrown by Neil O'Donnell, didn't get a hand on a pass this time. Quarterback Stan Humphries was assessed a career-tying four interceptions, though three of the wayward balls caromed off the hands of his receivers. And Tony Martin dropped a pass at the Steeler seven that could have pulled San Diego to a 31-22 deficit midway through the fourth quarter.