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Ground attack making Steelers the threat we all thought they'd be

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The NFL is supposed to be a league where running doesn't matter anymore, but someone please explain that to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They just ran to their third straight victory and slowly are evolving into the threat they hoped to become because ... well, because they're no longer one-dimensional.

Once upon a time, they were. Once upon a time the Steelers were all about Ben Roethlisberger and the big play. But times have changed, and the Steelers changed with them -- rotating backs because of injuries, making a commitment to a rushing attack that once was the hallmark of this franchise and suddenly ... finally ... making a move up in the AFC North.

And so Sunday it was third-string back Isaac Redman who stepped forward to shred his opponents ... and only because the Steelers' top two backs, Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer, were sidelined with injuries. No problem, the Steelers handed him the ball 26 times, and Redman responded with a career-best 147 yards in Pittsburgh's 24-20 come-from-behind defeat of the New York Giants -- a game coach Mike Tomlin termed "a significant road win for us."

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I'd say that has it right. The Steelers started the game without safety Troy Polamalu, tackle Marcus Gilbert and Mendenhall or Dwyer, then lost star wide receiver Antonio Brown and return specialist Chris Rainey during it.

That might have thrown some clubs, but not these guys. Remember, they had to fly here Sunday morning because the New Jersey hotel where they were booked had no power. And then they had to overcome a series of questionable calls -- including one by Tomlin on fourth-and-1 that cost them a sure score -- to overcome the defending Super Bowl champions.

Nevertheless, they did it, ending the Giants' four-game winning streak, but it's how they did it that's significant.

They ran ... and ran ... and ran.

That's not exactly a new story around the Steelers. The last three weeks they've looked more like the Steelers of old, hammering opponents with a rushing attack that featured Dwyer and Redman. Dwyer had back-to-back 100-yard games, the first time anyone in Pittsburgh did that in four years -- and he's the backup. Then Redman wore down the Giants Sunday, producing three runs of 12 or more yards, including a 28-yarder that clinched the victory late in the fourth quarter.

In their last four victories, the Steelers average 147 yards rushing per game and haven't lost. In their other four starts, they averaged 67.7 and were 1-3. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that, yes, as a matter of fact, running does matter to at least one team out there, and it's making a difference.

"We want to be versatile," said Roethlisberger. "We want to be able to do whatever it takes to win games -- whether it's running or throwing ... whatever."

Well, they've succeeded. The team that earlier this season ranked 31st in rushing is moving up the charts, and I know what passing enthusiasts are thinking: So what? Well, so this is just another element that could make the Steelers a nightmare for Baltimore in the AFC North.

The Ravens relied on the run for years, whether it was with Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee or Ray Rice, and left the big-play passing game to Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Of course, that formula has been successful, with Pittsburgh reaching three of the last seven Super Bowls -- but it doesn't hurt to be, as Roethlisbeger put it, "versatile" with your attack.

And Pittsburgh is.

Now the Steelers are beginning to close out opponents with the run, and their latest conquest is the evidence. Pittsburgh had the ball 10-and-a-half minutes more than its opponent -- a team that wants to run, too, but couldn't Sunday -- and it had it for 21 more plays, an advantage that played into the outcome.

"When everybody gets healthy," promised Redman, "we're going to be a team that is going to be reckoned with. With all three of us, who knows what we'll be?"

It's a good question. We just saw what happened when the Steelers were reduced to just one of them, and it was good enough to beat one of the league's most formidable opponents -- under, as I mentioned, adverse circumstances ... which, of course, is why you should start to pay attention to these guys.

They don't have to wait for Mendenhall and Dwyer to get healthy to be a playoff factor. They're beginning to look like one now. Granted, we have a half a season to go, but if the Steelers can topple the Giants -- in their stadium, after flying in that morning, without their top defensive player, without their top wide receiver and their top two running backs --- then imagine what happens when they field a complete cast.

"I think we're headed in the right direction," said tackle Max Starks, "but by far we're not a finished product by any stretch of the imagination. We still have to shore some things up, [but] the biggest thing to know is that if one guy goes down we're not stopped."

So we noticed.

The rest of the AFC should, too, because Pittsburgh is becoming the force we all thought it could be. How much a force we won't know for another month – or after Pittsburgh plays Baltimore twice in three weeks. That's the only opponent with a winning record left on the Steelers' schedule.

"It's the midpoint of the season," said Starks, "and we're almost where we want to be. Obviously, we wish we had a couple games back from earlier in the year, but we're moving in the right direction. We're finally not digging ourselves any holes anymore. We're finally starting to fill it with concrete so we can get some solid footing."

Don't say you weren't warned.

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