PITTSBURGH (AP) - Hines Ward occasionally glances around the NFL, sees teams such as the Colts and Rams throwing down after down and wonders why it can't be the Steelers.
Then he realizes that was the Steelers of a year ago - the team that discarded 30-plus years of run-to-win tradition and paid for it with a 6-10 season. The team that was determined to return to its running-game roots this season and has done exactly that.
"The great teams are the ones that can run the ball, control the clock, mix it up and be balanced," said Ward, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver. "We have weapons in the passing game, but we do have to run the ball. By running the ball, your passing productions will go down, but you can't be No. 1 in rushing and No. 1 in passing."
More importantly, the Steelers (3-1) are No. 1 in the AFC North, with a chance to be 4-1 for only the third time in 22 seasons if they can beat the Browns (2-2) at home Sunday.
A main reason for the turnaround is coach Bill Cowher's determination to again build around the run, one that led to the offseason signing of former Eagles running back Duce Staley.
The 5-fooot-11, 242-pound Staley runs with the physical style the Steelers have long preferred in their running backs. He has 224 yards in the last two games and is No. 8 in the league in rushing, a year after he spent a frustrating season in Philadelphia alternating with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter.
"One thing you know about the Pittsburgh Steelers is they are going to run the ball," said Staley, who needs just 91 yards to top the 463 he gained last season.
Staley got 39 yards on five carries during the pivotal 89-yard, 13-play drive that ended with Jerome Bettis' 1-yard scoring run during the fourth quarter of a 28-17 victory over the Bengals on Sunday.
But Staley missed practice Thursday with an infected right big toe and was downgraded from probable to questionable for Sunday's game against Cleveland. But Cowher expects him to play.
Staley initially missed practice Wednesday with fluid on the toe, and the infection was discovered after the fluid was drained. Staley was injured when someone stepped on his toe while he was running for 123 yards Sunday.
Meanwhile, inside linebacker Kendrell Bell had surgery to install a piece of mesh in his herniated groin. Bell, who hasn't played this season, is expected to miss at least two more games.
A year ago, quarterback Tommy Maddox likely would have thrown on nearly every down while trailing in the fourth quarter, but rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 3-for-5 for 23 yards during the drive. He threw only one pass - an incompletion - after the Steelers reached the Bengals 35.
"That was big," left guard Alan Faneca said. "We got the ball at the end of the third quarter and kept it well into the fourth quarter. It was a big drive - and how we did it and how long we stayed on the field that late in the game was huge."
Staley missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a toe injury, but Cowher expects him to be ready Sunday.
The Steelers dropped from No. 1 in rushing in 2001 to No. 31 last season partly because of former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's gradual but ever-increasing emphasis on the pass. The system worked fine when there was a running game to support it when the Steelers went 13-3 in 2001 and 10-5-1 in 2002, but was sporadic and mostly ineffective last season.
"We came in this year with the intent of running the ball and making it the mind-set of this football team," Cowher said. "Being 31st in rushing ... that's not us."
It didn't help when numerous injuries along the offensive line last season rarely allowed the same unit to play from week to week. This season, the line has stayed healthy and intact since right guard Kendall Simmons injured a knee during training camp and was lost for the season.
Adding Staley has sent No. 6 NFL career rusher Bettis to the bench, but Bettis has scored five touchdowns on short-yardage runs. No. 3 running back Verron Haynes also contributed an 11-yard touchdown catch against Cincinnati.
With the Steelers again running the ball consistently, Whisenhunt has all but discarded the gadgets and gimmicks that Mularkey liked, such as moving wide receiver Antwaan Randle El to quarterback for a play or two.
"You never like those plays when they don't work, and I'm as guilty as anyone," Cowher said. "I think that where we are right now, Kenny has done a very good job of taking and developing a mind-set within our offense."