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Steelers' MVPs might be their five offensive linemen

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ When the Pittsburgh Steelers vote for the team's most valuable player this year, a lot of ballots might be split five ways.

Even with so many players enjoying big seasons Ben Roethlisberger, Duce Staley, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu the Steelers agree almost unanimously that the offensive line is the main reason for their dramatic turnaround.

One season after the Steelers endured their worst season running the ball since 1967, they are No. 2 in rushing with only 20 fewer yards in nine games than they had in 16 last season. They're well down the list in sacks allowed, too, with only 15 25 fewer than the New York Giants.

Massive personnel changes aren't the reason for the upgrade; each of the five regulars started at least nine games last season except left tackle Marvel Smith, limited to six starts by a neck injury.

So how could a line that played well below expectations on a 6-10 team last year be performing at such a high level this season on an 8-1 team?

There's been a big emphasis on the run this year from the start,'' former All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said Wednesday.We've been running the ball a lot and getting a lot of chances, and the running backs have been doing a good job of getting through the holes.''

Last year, the Steelers abandoned their long-standing commitment to the running game to emphasize quarterback Tommy Maddox's throwing, a byproduct of Maddox's strong production once he became the starter in 2002.

This season, the Steelers have emphasized the run since the opening week of camp, when offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt didn't call a single passing play during the first three goal-line scrimmages against the defense.

It's also helped that there have been no injuries since right guard Kendall Simmons (knee) was lost for the season early in camp. Keydrick Vincent stepped in for Simmons after making nine starts last season and, along with an ever-improving Oliver Ross at right tackle, has stabilized what appeared to be a shaky right side of the line.

We're all anchored in our spots for a couple of months now, and that helps,'' Faneca said.It helps to know what the guy next to you is thinking. It makes life a lot easier out there when you can just let it rip.''

The results are obvious. The line was so dominating during a 27-3 victory over the Eagles on Nov. 7 that television repeatedly showed replays displaying holes big enough for a bus to drive through _ or for the Bus, Jerome Bettis, to run through.

We realized that we're going to run the ball six, seven times in a row and you just run it,'' Faneca said.Just pounding it and driving it and running, we feed off that.''

Jeff Hartings, a nine-year veteran at center and the team's most experienced lineman, agrees it would be difficult for any line to be playing much better.

Offensive line coach Russ Grimm might not agree _ after all, he played on one of the best-known lines ever for the Super Bowl champion Redskins. But he appreciates what he's seeing, even if it has been for only about a half-season.

Now, can we do it consistently?'' he said.That's the toughest thing.''

Vincent doesn't see any letdown coming.

What's crazy about this year is, after practice, a lot of us know the things we need to work on and we'll just work on it ourselves,'' he said.We take pride in what we're doing.''

The Steelers are proving an offensive line need not be studded with expensive high draft picks to be successful. While Faneca and Smith are big-money players, Vincent was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001 and Ross didn't play a game in 1999 or 2000 after the Cowboys let him go following a brief trial in 1998.

The fall of the offense last year fell on our shoulders,'' Faneca said.So we take a little respect for ourselves knowing that us playing well is helping out the offense this year.''

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