BY GEOFF HOBSON
PITTSBURGH - The AFC East Jets learned the hard AFC North lesson at the bottom of a cold, dark well Saturday night in the frozen gloom of Heinz Field.
The Steelers hammered home the point 43 times during Saturday night's divisional playoff game, and nine times in the overtime to vault into next Sunday's AFC championship game. Pittsburgh wore out the valiant Jets on 4.5 yards per those 43 rushes, reminding the Bengals and everyone else that the key to Northern supremacy is stopping the run in a division of runners.
"That's the division," said Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen after a grimy North-like battle produced a 20-17 OT win in which the Jets offense never got into the end zone.
"It's a division where there are a lot of Pro Bowlers on the offensive and defensive lines. It's physical any time you play Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland. It's almost like a battle of egos. Who's the toughest? And it makes you better as the season goes on."
Bengals take notice
This is no surprise to Cincinnati, a franchise that several Steelers acknowledged Saturday night is a program on the make. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis isn't pleased his team gave up an average of 163 yards per game on the ground in six AFC North games, and that looks to be one of the reasons he's expected to name a new defensive coordinator as early as Tuesday.
And Lewis must be on the right track as he continues to seek speed for his roster. Asked why his unit is so good after strangling the Jets on nine of 12 third downs, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau didn't hesitate.
"We're fast," he said.
The Steelers did to the Jets on Saturday what they did to the Bengals (316 rushing yards in two games) and everyone else this season. And forget it if they are bronzing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Steel City after he raised his record to 14-0 in this Walter Mitty rookie season.
(And his third-and-six scramble in overtime that produced the 17-yard flip pass to wide receiver Hines Ward might be mentioned in the same breath with the Immaculate Reception by Sunday morning.)
But every Pittsburgh school kid knows the Steelers beat the Jets in spite of Roethlisberger when Jeff Reed kicked a 33-yard field goal with 3:56 left in the first overtime. For the first time in his career, Roethlisberger threw 30 passes. He only completed 17 of them for 181 yards and the second worst passer rating of his season (57.8), and watched one of his two interceptions returned for safety Reggie Tongue's 86-yard touchdown.
But it's OK to finally play like a rookie quarterback when running backs named Jerome Bettis (27 carries for 101 yards), Duce Staley (11-54) and someone named Verron Haynes (a very big 1-8) can get in the Steelers' revolving door running game and churn out 193 yards against the Jets' No. 5 rush defense.
Running the ball cures a lot of ills and hides a lot of mistakes. Like Steelers center Jeff Hartings said, "We were lucky. We should have lost," after the Jets whiffed two field goals in the final 1:58 of regulation.
"It wasn't me out there today. It was tough going," said Roethlisberger, the Miami of Ohio product who has cradled the Steelers' Super Bowl hopes in his smart, accurate right arm. "I did everything I could to lose the game, but luckily our defense did a good job leading us to victory. Down the stretch we ran the ball well, and Duce came in and did a good job, as did Jerome. Verron made a big play on third down. I give a lot of credit to the offensive linemen as well."
One of those lineman, Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, played his usual dominating game, and reminded everyone why Roethlisberger is everyone's NFL Rookie of the Year.
Big plays in OT
Sure, Roethlisberger made some big plays on third down, but he was shaky at best against a Jets defense daring him to throw much of the second half against three defensive backs. The Steelers have lived this season running on third-and-five and protecting Roethlisberger. And on third-and-four from the Jets 44 in the OT, they did it again behind Faneca up the middle.
Pittsburgh called a draw play to Haynes, a backup backup, and he ripped off eight yards on just his 56th carry of the season. Three bolts by the fresh legs of Staley and a line plunge each by Bettis and Roethlisberger put Reed at the 15 and the Steelers in the title game.
"It doesn't have to be third-and-one," Faneca said. "We can run it on third-and-four, and they're going to let us run it on third-and-four, and see what we can do with it. It's exciting when they put it on our shoulders late in the game. They put faith in us and we've just been sticking to the program."
And, other teams know it. In the game the Steelers beat New England this season, the Pats ran their goal-line defense on the field for six straight third-down snaps.
"We had shown them some quick throws on that down," said Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt of the draw call. "We thought they might be in a little bit of zone coverage and try to trap some of those throws. It gave us a chance to run it up in there."
The Steelers have one of the five worst passing offenses in football, but they have won 16 of 17 games because they live and breathe the run. In the second half Sunday, the Jets resorted to trying to stop the run with what amounted to three defensive linemen and five linebackers. The Steelers just shrugged and ran it harder.
"When they went with their big personnel," Hartings said, "we knew it was going to come down to who won it up front."
The Steelers rarely lose those. When Bettis went down with a cramp late in the second half, Staley, struggling with a hamstring since Week 7, re-surfaced and saw that the Jets were weary from a Steeler attack that hogged the ball for all but three minutes of third quarter.
"They started bringing three and four linebackers in, and we kept pounding the ball when the game was on the line," Staley said.
Bettis: "That's what we want to do. We want to run the football. Pound it, pound it, and take it right to you."
Hartings couldn't help but smile.
"That's our game. No doubt. That's our identity," he said. "They know it. We know it. That's why people play eight in the box against us."
Ground attack comes through
Even Roethlisberger's touchdown pass was a product of the running game, a four-yard shovel to Ward running in motion and then cutting behind the pulling Faneca for the tying score with six minutes left in regulation. Eight of the 12 plays in the drive, including Roethlisberger's alert 20-yard scramble, were on the ground.
"A lot of it has to do with the coaches," Faneca said. "They put us in the right situations and the right plays."
Yes, you may know the Steelers are going to pound it at you. But like Ward said about his touchdown, "We knew once we called it, it was going to be a touchdown because we never ran that play out of that formation."
The Steelers now wait for the AFC East Pats or the AFC South Colts, but they think their six AFC North games have prepared their running game for what lies ahead.
Remember, the Steelers shared eight common foes this season with the Bengals that were outside the division, a schedule that for Cincinnati featured 10 top 10 defenses and 13 in the top 15.
"I think it helped us in the fourth quarter when we had to run the ball. We've been playing against good defenses all year," Whisenhunt said. "We felt like we had the confidence to do it. That used to be the trademark of the old AFC Central, and the North is getting that way. Cleveland obviously struggled, but Baltimore and Cincinnati were good teams, especially from a defensive standpoint."
Faneca thinks "the reporters" have underestimated the division, but not the players.
"There isn't anything we haven't seen this year," he said. "And that helps us adjust quicker."
Von Oelhoffen, the former Bengals draft pick who has become a staple of the NFL's top-ranked defense, thinks his unit has a valuable ally down the stretch in the Steelers offensive line.
"At that point, deep down as a defensive player, you hope they pound it. Just pound it," said von Oelhoffen of the last crucial moments. "These guys will outlast anybody I've ever seen on a football field.
"They're very, very athletic, and tenacious. And they've got the best coach in the NFL - Russ Grimm. Teams are trying to get him as a head coach. I'd give a salary to keep him."
Count von Oelhoffen as another Steeler who thinks his division is always coming up with something. The North's 36 total wins trailed only the AFC East by one in the NFL.
"Every year it seems like there's a team that sets our division apart," von Oelhoffen said. "This year it's us. The past few years it's been Baltimore. Cincinnati is up and coming."
But to make it in a division with Staley, Bettis, Jamal Lewis, Rudi Johnson, William Green and Lee Suggs, the stat sheet was clear.
"Run the ball and stop the run," von Oelhoffen said. "That's the division."
On Saturday night, it was the season.