PITTSBURGH — Offensive lineman nirvana arrived for the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the first quarter on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
Ten snaps. All handoffs from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Le’Veon Bell.
Each one of them chewing up clock, yardage and whatever mettle Miami’s defensive front seven might have brought north to chilly Heinz Field with them.
When the drive ended 83 yards and 5:27 later with Bell stretching across the goal line to give the Steelers a 20-3 lead, Pittsburgh’s transformation from aerial circus that produced a quick two-touchdown lead to a battering ram protecting that advantage was complete.
“It’s the best feeling for an offensive lineman controlling the line of scrimmage and knowing they can’t stop it,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “That surge off the football, it kills the defense. It demoralizes them.”
And it showcased just how versatile Pittsburgh’s offense has become during the eight-game winning streak it carries to Kansas City on Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Steelers have beaten teams in various ways during their two-month renaissance following a choppy 4-5 start.
One week it’s Roethlisberger hooking up with Antonio Brown three times for scores as they did during a Thanksgiving night victory in Indianapolis.
The next it’s Bell setting a franchise record with 236 yards rushing in snowy Buffalo.
It’s the kind of versatility the Steelers (12-5) believe can make them a tough out going forward, one they showcased during their first meeting with the Chiefs in October, when Roethlisberger tossed five touchdowns and Bell ran for 144 yards in his return from a three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
“We’re a team that’s really balanced,” Bell said . “We can spread guys out, throw the ball all over the place, line up big, run the ball out of shotgun or run or pass out of four-wide. I think we’re really balanced, and we can attack in different ways.”
Having a healthy line and one of the league’s most skilled backs certainly helps. The proof of Pittsburgh’s dominance running the ball over the past seven weeks — a stretch in which Bell has piled up 1,002 yards rushing — is that the Steelers haven’t done much to disguise when they’re going let Bell do his thing.
When Pittsburgh wants to set the tone, offensive coordinator Todd Haley will often send in 286-pound guard Chris Hubbard as a sixth lineman with 270-pound blocking tight end David Johnson. Though technically there are pass options for Roethlisberger when the Steelers go to their “heavy” set, they don’t.
It’s a formula borrowed from former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who championed the idea of throwing early so you can run late.
It worked to near perfection against the Dolphins, when Bell broke Hall of Famer Franco Harris’ franchise record for yards rushing in a postseason game by the end of the third quarter.
Bell finished with 167 yards on the ground and Pittsburgh cruised to its biggest playoff blowout in 20 years on a day Roethlisberger threw just 18 passes and just six in the second half.
“We have a better understanding of who we are,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.
What Pittsburgh needs to be in Kansas City is potent but also careful with the ball, something that’s been an issue at times recently in the postseason.
Roethlisberger has thrown nine interceptions in his past seven playoff games, including a pair against Miami.
The second came on a third-down overthrow with less than 5 minutes to go that left Roethlisberger’s right foot pinned underneath Miami’s Cameron Wake and forced Roethlisberger to briefly wear a protective boot after the game.
Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on Tuesday that his foot is fine and Tomlin has no concerns over Roethlisberger’s availability while also taking the blame for having his franchise quarterback throwing so late with things well in hand.
“I got a little overaggressive there,” Tomlin said.
A trait that’s been a hallmark of the Tomlin/Roethlisberger/Haley partnership.
Tomlin would love to be in the position again on Sunday.
So would the rest of the Steelers, who have no problem ceding the ball and the spotlight to Bell and the big guys in front of him who have been the guiding force during two months of methodical brilliance.
“When Bell keeps running the ball the way he’s running the ball, I don’t care if we pass the ball five times a game,” rookie wide receiver Demarcus Ayers said. “If we come out of stadiums healthy and Bell does what he does, I’m fine with that.”
NOTES: Tomlin said there is no timetable for how long assistant coach Joey Porter will remain on leave. The team placed Porter on leave Monday following his arrest on several charges stemming from an incident at a Pittsburgh bar hours after the victory over Miami. ... TE Ladarius Green remains in the concussion protocol after missing his third straight game following a helmet-to-helmet hit against Cincinnati.
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell runs through a tackle by Miami Dolphins free safety Bacarri Rambo during the first half of an AFC wild-card game in Pittsburgh on Sunday. ASSOCIATED PRESS