The moment of truth in the 2005 AFC North race, the moment that will have repercussions in January, came midway through the first half of Sunday's game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the rain at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers, trailing the upstart Bengals by 1 1/2 games in the division standings entering Week 7, were fortunate to be losing by only 3-0. Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry had dropped a pass in the end zone, and Shayne Graham later missed a 30-yard field goal attempt.
With 2:36 left in the first quarter Pittsburgh went to work at its 40-yard line. Running back Willie Parker bulled for four, one and six yards, then wideout Hines Ward ran a reverse for four. " Steelers football," Jerome Bettis, who came off the bench to spell Parker, would say later. With Bettis in the backfield, it was time for the Bengals to make a stand. They were 5-1, but their wins had come against teams with a combined record of 9-22; this was one of those situations that would determine if they were finally playoff contenders.
Pittsburgh blew right through them. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit 258-pound rookie tight end Heath Miller on a crossing route for 20 yards. Then, boom! Bettis for three behind left tackle Marvel Smith. Bam! Bettis for 10 past the block of center Jeff Hartings. Bang! Bettis for five more behind left guard Alan Faneca, moving the ball just inside the two-yard line. On second-and-two everyone in the stadium knew who would get the ball next. So what did offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt call? Play-action to Bettis, the lone setback, and a crossing pattern for Miller through the back of the end zone. "Give me a good fake on this one, JB," Roethlisberger said to Bettis as they broke the huddle. Bettis sold it--"You could see their linebackers collapsing on me right away, like they just had to stop me," he said--and Roethlisberger floated an easy rainbow to an uncovered Miller. Touchdown.
Though the scoring play turned out to be a pass, the forward thrust of the Cincinnati defense underscored the value of Bettis--and the respect the Pittsburgh ground game commands from opponents. "That play worked because Jerome is such a force," said Whisenhunt. "You saw what the Bengals had to do because he was in there. People see the romance of throwing the ball 40 times a game, but running the ball--that's what football was meant to be."
"We just imposed our will out there," said Faneca, a four-time Pro Bowl player. "That's who we are. That's what we do." No braggadocio, just a matter-of-fact consistency that's rare among NFL teams outside Philadelphia and Foxborough. Maybe that's why the Steelers have won 20 of their last 24 games, since coach Bill Cowher returned to a run- and defense-oriented strategy.
Last year Pittsburgh became the first NFL team in 20 years to run the ball on 60% or more of their snaps, rushing 61.1% of the time. After running on 47 of 62 plays for 221 yards against Cincinnati, the Steelers have stayed on the ground 59.6% of the time this year. The Falcons are second, at 55.9%.
Come January, Pittsburgh's best chance to get past the powerful Colts or Patriots (or both) will be to keep the ball out of the hands of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. There's no reason to divert from its game plan on Sunday.