BOB MARLEY was onthe stereo, the NBA playoffs were on the TV, and the Pittsburgh Steelers'offensive line was in the water. Leadership is demonstrated through gesturesbig and small, and on a free weekend last May during the Steelers' organizedteam activities, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a major splash. He flewall of his offensive linemen to Atlanta on his private plane, drove them anhour to his lake house, took them on his wakeboard boat, gave them rafts, jetskis and inner tubes, and watched the hilarity that ensues when 300-poundersplay aquatic bumper cars. At one point 344-pound guard Chris Kemoeatu slammedinto 324-pound tackle Trai Essex so hard that they both rocketed into the air,creating a small tsunami as they came crashing down. "I didn't stoplaughing for two days," Roethlisberger says. "A couple of inner tubeswere lost on the trip. A couple of shorts were lost too."
Roethlisbergerplanned the vacation not only for his amusement but also for his long-termhealth. If he could take care of his linemen on a sunny spring weekend, maybethey would return the favor on a snowy winter Sunday. At times this season itseemed Roethlisberger's generosity would never be repaid. He suffered 46 sacks,second most in the NFL, separated his shoulder in the opener and sustained histhird concussion in three years in the finale. But on Sunday night, two weeksafter he lay on a stretcher at Heinz Field with no feeling in his arms,Roethlisberger stood in the pocket with a clear head, a clean jersey and timeto kill. After dissecting the Chargers 35--24 at Heinz, the fifth-year QBsought out his offensive linemen, shook their hands and thanked them for givinghim a pain-free trip to the AFC Championship Game.
The last timeRoethlisberger tried to come back from a concussion, in 2006, he threw seveninterceptions in his next two games. Against San Diego he completed 17 of 26passes for 181 yards, did not throw a pick and was sacked only once."People called us the worst offensive line in the NFL," says righttackle Willie Colon. "I've gotten mail calling me the worst right tackle inthe league. I've had an old lady cuss me out on the street. I went to Walmartlast week and a guy yelled at me, 'You've got to effin' protect!' I was like,Bro, I'm just trying to get a loaf of bread here."
Roethlisbergerrecognized early on that this year's line might need extra attention—andaffection. The starters include guard Darnell Stapleton, an undrafted freeagent who'd never played an NFL game before this season; Kemoeatu, asixth-round pick who was a backup in his two previous seasons; and centerJustin Hartwig, another sixth-rounder who signed last March as a free agent.What the linemen lack in pedigree, however, they make up for in camaraderie.They watch extra film at Hartwig's house and Monday Night Football atRoethlisberger's. To celebrate Hartwig's 30th birthday in November,Roethlisberger flew the line to Chicago, put them up in the Trump InternationalHotel and stood on the sideline with them at Ryan Field as Illinois playedNorthwestern, Essex's alma mater. "That stuff matters," Hartwig says."When you have continuity off the field, it carries over. The more weinvest in each other, the better we play."
Pittsburgh was theonly home team to defend its turf in the divisional round, a quirk that formerrunning back Jerome Bettis explained thusly: "The weather here is bad, thefield is bad, and the defense is bad-ass." On Sunday at Heinz, the Steelerswill face a Ravens defense almost as bone-chilling as theirs. "We don'tlike them," Colon says. "It's the history, but it's also the arroganceand the disrespect they show us."
The signaturemoments of Roethlisberger's season have come against Baltimore. In September,with the Steelers trailing 13--3 at halftime, he shouted at his linemen,"We can't always rely on the defense! We have to show up too!" Then hepersuaded coordinator Bruce Arians to dust off the Lightning Package, Steelersparlance for the no-huddle, which Roethlisberger leaned on for a comebackvictory. And when the teams met in December and the Steelers trailed 9--6 latein the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger again went to the lightning to direct a12-play, 92-yard drive that receiver Hines Ward called the quarterback's bestever, capped by a pass that exemplified Roethlisberger's stubbornness and hisbrilliance.
Facingthird-and-goal from the four, on a play Roethlisberger had never run before, herolled left, looked off three receivers, rolled back right and threaded a passto fourth option Santonio Holmes for the winning score. A more conservative QBwould have thrown the ball away and settled for a game-tying field goal. Butthat TD gave Roethlisberger the AFC North title, a first-round bye and the mostwins (51 now) of any quarterback in his first five seasons. "He always getscriticized for taking hits and not throwing the ball away," Arians says."But if he throws that ball away, we're probably the Number 6 seed and onthe road right now."
Arians was the QBcoach in Indianapolis when Peyton Manning was a rookie, and he remembers howfans demanded the Colts throw 50 times a game. Pittsburgh may be the only NFLcity where the locals clamor for fewer pass plays. The Steelers ranked 23rd inrushing this season, which prompted running back Willie Parker to chirp inDecember, "We got away from Steelers football, Steelers mentality." ToParker's delight—and that of 63,899 at Heinz—Pittsburgh ran the ball 42 timesfor 165 yards on Sunday. Finally up to speed after struggling with shoulder andknee injuries, Parker accounted for 146 of those yards on 27 attempts. During athird quarter that epitomized Steelers-style ball control, the Chargers ranjust one play and had the ball for 17 seconds.
To those whostill believe that Pittsburgh doesn't run enough, Arians would recommend a lookback at their recent Super Bowl team: Not a single rusher gained 100 yards in apostseason game. Rather, the Steelers handed the ball to Roethlisberger, and hetook them to the title. Now, despite an inconsistent running game, suspectprotection and injuries at the beginning of the season as well as the end,Roethlisberger is back in the AFC title game for the third time in his fiveyears. The other favorites—the Giants, Panthers and Titans—are all sunk. TheSteelers, buoyed by their inner-tubing offensive linemen, are happilyafloat.
"A guy at Walmart yelled at me, 'You've got toeffin' PROTECT!'" says Colon. "I was like, Bro, I'm just trying to geta loaf of bread here."
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Photograph by Bob Rosato
GROUND CONTROL Parker rediscovered his form at just the right time, gaining 146 yards on 27 carries, including this 16-yard, fourth-quarter TD sprint that put the game out of reach.
¬†STEELSUPPORT Pittsburgh's beleaguered offensive line gave Roethlisberger (7) all thetime he needed to pick apart San Diego.
PILE DRIVER James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and the rest of the D kept the heat on Philip Rivers (17).
JOHN BIEVER (WARD)
MAIN MAN Ward has been impressed with his QB's play under pressure.