PITTSBURGH (AP) -Exactly what coach Mike Tomlin didn't want to hear during a week the Pittsburgh Steelers will play for a conference championship: How good his offensive line is playing.
Even as the Steelers won 12 games and a division title, as they were beating the Patriots, Cowboys and Ravens during a rugged three-week stretch, the one constant theme was how poorly the offensive line was playing.
C'mon, the Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing. The Steelers? Was the team of Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis, Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson becoming a throwing team?
What Tomlin knew was all the talk that the Steelers missed Alan Faneca, that they couldn't replace injured starters Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons, that rookie Rashard Mendenhall's season-ending injury wrecked their running back depth and that all the sacks they were allowing was very motivating.
nd the Steelers again running the ball like, well, the Steelers, Tomlin was asked Tuesday how well his line is playing.
``Everyone wants to focus in on our offensive line as a source of why we play well or don't play well,'' Tomlin said. ``We did enough to win. We tend to leave it at that and let our performance speak for itself.''
Still, Tomlin was pressed, isn't it evident how much better the line is playing?
Tomlin wouldn't budge.
``Not really,'' Tomlin said.
With the physical Ravens preparing to play for the AFC championship on Sunday - the third Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup in 3 1/2 months - Tomlin doesn't want a line that has four different starters since a year ago getting one bit comfortable.
Apparently, the fans don't either.
After the Steelers allowed only a single sack during their 35-24 divisional-round victory over San Diego on Sunday, right tackle Willie Colon related how he can't go grocery shopping without fans critiquing his play.
This is Pittsburgh after all, a big city in name only where the loyalty to the Steelers is unwavering but the expectations are exceedingly high, and rooters are raised to expect their team to play tough, run the ball and back down to no one.
That it's taken this long for the line to settle in might be understandable.
fore the end of September, making Darnell Stapleton and Max Starks starters. Justin Hartwig won the starting job at center from Sean Mahan.
Ben Roethlisberger tried to hasten the line's progress by taking the linemen to Chicago for a guys-only confab two months ago, and Hartwig also began assembling them for regular video-watching sessions outside of the practice complex.
Parker finally got healthy, too. After having only three 100-yard games all season, Parker has rushed for 116 and 143 yards in his last two games. That's meaningful because the Steelers are 5-0 in playoff games when Parker starts.
The Steelers need a productive Parker against the Ravens, the team that has controlled him like no other. Parker has gained 262 yards while averaging 2.8 yards per carry in six games against the Ravens, including 47 yards on 14 carries last month in Baltimore,
``Now, the sky's the limit,'' Colon said. ``A lot of people said we wouldn't make it this far. You look at our O-line, we lose Faneca, we lost Simmons, we lost Marvel, we were considered the worst line in the NFL. So why not go for it all? We got nothing to lose. Nobody expected us to be here. I'm just proud of us five guys, just believing in each other and sticking with each other.''
Shhh, he might not want Tomlin hearing that.
``We've performed better as an offense because we block people and ran the football,'' Tomlin said, finally offering a bit of praise.
Considering the source, that Steelers' line couldn't ask for more.

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