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Steelers' success will come through the air

| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002

Air Cowher?

Not in this lifetime, right?

Forget how smooth and elusive Antwaan Randle El looks at wide receiver. Refuse to be fooled by Plaxico Burress' big-play potential. And pay no attention to the results generated by a running game that has had a hard time falling forward in three preseason games.

The Steelers are a running team.

They are going to run the ball.

That's been Bill Cowher's philosophy ever since he took command of the Steelers in 1992. One of the reasons why is Cowher remembers what caused him to lose the most sleep as a defensive coordinator.

"I still think that you better be able to stop the run," Cowher said. "If you cannot stop the running game, you're in for a long day, you're in for a short game. You're in for a situation where they're controlling the tempo. I think you can ask any defensive coach, there's nothing more demoralizing as when you know they're going to run it and they run it effectively.

"Now, you may have some games where people are going to throw on you. They're going to hit some big plays against you. They're going to have big yards. Certainly, you're going to have to deal with that. But when you cannot stop the running game, that can take a lot out of your football team.

"We prioritize being able to stop the run. If you cannot stop a team from running the football, the one thing that isn't going to change, that clock keeps running and you don't have the ball. That's usually not a very good situation in a game."

Cowher wants to be the one dictating tempo, controlling the clock and demoralizing the guy on the other sideline by running the ball effectively.

That would explain why the Steelers have run the ball more than they've thrown it in seven of Cowher's first 10 seasons as the team's head coach.

One of the seasons in which they didn't was 1995, when five-wide receivers sets were popularized and the Steelers went to the Super Bowl for the first and only time under Cowher. So maybe we'd better not forget all that we've seen from Randle El and Burress, and what we haven't seen from the ground game this preseason after all.

"I'd like to be able to throw the ball effectively, score quick and then run the ball for the rest of the game," Cowher said. "That's the best of both worlds, honestly."

Since the real world rarely resembles the potential best of any alternatives, it's important that the Steelers not only recognize who they are this season but also embrace the concept.

It would be a miscalculation, in other words, to cling to the philosophical belief that the running game is what will win the Steelers a championship and fail to realize the passing game's potential as a result.

The 2002 Steelers are at least two deep at quarterback and possess a couple of potential stars in Randle El and Burress. And in Hines Ward, they have as reliable a first-down maker at wide receiver as they could hope for.

These Steelers also have offensive line and running back issues.

They're better suited to pass.

Not that the ground game should be forgotten, but it can no longer be universally accepted as the Steelers' staple.

That's akin to replacing the playbook with the Communist Manifesto as far as the Steelers' traditional approach is concerned. But if it takes a revolution to win a Super Bowl, Cowher might start quoting Che Guevara.

Already, Cowher has hinted the time for a significant philosophical shift is at hand. He did so Saturday in Detroit when he revealed the Steelers were not going to be "force-feeding" the running game this season, "as maybe we've done in the past."

There's no need to this season.

Not when all the ground game needs to do is complement the passing attack for a change.

That doesn't mean Jerome Bettis should be forgotten. The Rams are relatively explosive throwing the ball, and Marshall Faulk still manages to rush for more than over 1,000 yards.

It's safe to assume they also manage to cause opposing defensive coordinators to lose sleep and then demoralize them Sunday afternoons.

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