A conversation between two Steelers tackles in the locker room Sunday on the topic of their sudden return to the I-formation, the ground game and the productivity that went with it:
Max Starks: "It felt good."
Willie Colon: "It felt darn
Even defensive linemen like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel enjoyed it.
"It was great!" Keisel said. "I was telling Aaron and Hamp on the bench, 'It's wonderful to sit here with you guys, to laugh and joke and watch those guys run the ball.'
"It was great to see Willie going again. I knew when he came in, he was ready to rock and roll."
Willie Parker planted the seed on Dec. 10 when he publicly complained about a lack of commitment to both the ground game and the use of a fullback. Sunday, the Steelers used fullback Sean McHugh in the I formation like never before this season. It produced Parker's second-best output of the season at 116 yards, the team's second-most rushing yards at 176 and three rushing touchdowns.
Most important, Sunday's performance on the ground in a 31-0 whipping of the Cleveland Browns might have sown more seeds for their playoff strategy on offense.
"Oh, yeah, that's something we're definitely going to have to utilize in the playoffs," said linebacker James Farrior, the defensive captain. "Everybody knows that in this locker room."
The drop-off in the ground game left the Steelers ranked 23rd in the NFL, their second lowest since they joined the AFC as part of the NFL merger in 1970. Parker stewed much of the season about what he felt was a lack of commitment to the running game, and the two-time Pro Bowl halfback took a public rebuke from coach Mike Tomlin when he spoke up three weeks ago.
Tomlin, though, told his team last Monday that they would "pound the ball" against the Browns, to the delight of most everyone.
"I feel we were able to line up and run the football at them," center Justin Hartwig said of Sunday's game. "That's what we talked about doing. We have to be able to do that no matter who we play against. It's a big positive for us pushing into playoffs."
It was evident that Parker was a mere spokesman for others who felt the same way when he bemoaned the lack of what he termed "Steelers football" that day.
"Hopefully the coaches will keep that in mind for the playoffs," Starks said. "We can run out of the I. Sure, it makes it more one-dimensional in some aspects, but it's successful."
The defense loves it because when it works, as it has so often for the Steelers through the years, and the drives are long, it keeps them off the field.
The question now is, can they return to the type of offense that effectively runs behind the I formation in the playoffs against defenses that will pose more problems than Cleveland's, which finished 28th in the league against the run?
"I guess they felt that's something we have to do and something we're going to need in the future, so we might as well start practicing it now," Farrior said.
Parker was as delighted as anyone and showed it when he fired the ball deep into the stands after his 34-yard touchdown run against the Browns.
"I love the I formation, I love the plays that were called," Parker said. "I knew we were going to pound the ball so you know I definitely love that, being a running back.
"Coach Tomlin told us Monday we were going to pound the football, and that's what we've been practicing all week, running the football. Just keep running, keep running and that's what we did, we just kept running it down their throat."
Among the run defenses the Steelers could see if they want to reach the Super Bowl are the best in the AFC: No. 2 Baltimore (behind the No. 1 Steelers) No. 3 Tennessee, No. 5 Miami and No. 6 San Diego.
"Will we know if Willie's words paid off or not?" Starks asked. "We'll see in the playoffs because that's what's going to matter and that's crunch time. Hopefully after [Sunday], Coach will feel a lot more confident puling the trigger in there."
Said Parker: "No matter what we do we can run the football. It's just a matter of doing it."