NFL PLAYOFFS : Entrenched in Anonymity : Steelers' Offensive Line Might Not Be Famous (Whose Is?) but It Works Together to Get the Job Done


So you claim to be a news junkie. You subscribe to two newspapers, three magazines and your television is always tuned to CNN.

So, who are Justin Strzelczyk, John Jackson, Dermontti Dawson and Leon Searcy?

The last four guys who won the lottery?

Four members of the new Republican Congress?

Four members of the O.J. Simpson jury?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But don't feel bad. Most people outside Pennsylvania--excepting true football die-hards and friends and relatives--don't recognize the names of four players in the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line. Only left guard Duval Love, the fifth lineman, has any sort of national identity.

Even San Diego Coach Bobby Ross, whose Chargers will play the Steelers in the AFC title game here Sunday, has problems identifying this group.

"I think Douglas is an outstanding football player," Ross said Wednesday.

Uh, that's Dawson, Bobby.

"Our position, you don't get a lot of publicity anyway," said Dawson, who, like Love, was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team. "It's just not a glamour position. Ours is just straight blue-collar, working mentality. Just go out there and get the job done. Barry (Foster) gets his 100 yards, we're happy. That's where we get our satisfaction. Offensive linemen are a different breed. We don't have to have somebody stroking us every five minutes."

Even so, here are a few seconds' worth: This line is one of the main reasons the Steelers led the league in rushing this season and one of the main reasons the team is playing in the AFC championship game. And this line may well prove to be one of the main reasons the Steelers advance to Super Bowl XXIX, if that is indeed the case.

Everybody knows the Pittsburgh defense that has terrorized the opposition all season.

But it is the offensive line that has swallowed up defensive linemen and linebackers, giving quarterback Neil O'Donnell time to throw and running backs Foster, Bam Morris and John L. Williams room to roam.

It's a diverse line, in age, experience and temperament.

The oldest is Love, the former Ram and UCLA Bruin, who is 31. The youngest is Searcy, 25.

Dawson has the longest starting streak, having been in the lineup since 1988, 100 consecutive games. The shortest streak is Strzelczyk's. He started the last five regular-season games and last weekend's playoff game after Todd Kalis was forced out by an ankle injury.

The most solid might be Love, a neatness freak, who abhors litter around his locker stall, mess around the house and sloppiness at his position. The least conventional is Strzelczyk, who spends his free time on his motorcycle, roaring down the road, long hair flowing.

But when the ball is snapped, the differences fade and the forces unite.

Kent Stephenson, Pittsburgh's offensive line coach, broke his unit down this way:

Left tackle Jackson, 6 feet 6, 297 pounds, a starter since 1992--"A very gifted athlete for his size."

Left guard Love, 6-3, 288, a starter since 1992--"Very, very consistent."

Center Dawson, 6-2, 286, a starter since 1988--"Great power, along with cat-like quickness."

Right guard Strzelczyk, 6-6, 295, the newest starter--"He isn't pretty getting the job done, but he gets it done."

Right tackle Searcy, 6-3, 304, a starter since last year--"A very powerful human being."

Those things didn't apply, though, when the Dallas Cowboys came to town for the season opener. The Cowboys barely tipped their helmets in greeting on their way through the line en route to the backfield, smashing through what looked like a papier-mache line for nine sacks in a game Pittsburgh lost, 26-9.

"It was a wake-up call," Searcy said. "After the game, we sat down and took that game to heart. We asked ourselves, 'Is this the way we want the season to go?' "

Obviously not. The next week, against the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh's offensive line did not give up a single sack, gave up only two in the three games after the debacle against Dallas and had only one other disastrous game all season, surrendering eight sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals, of all teams.

Last week in Pittsburgh's playoff opener against Cleveland, the Steeler line was operating at peak efficiency, permitting no sacks while enabling its backs to grind out 238 yards rushing, the team's second highest total of the year.

"We communicate well," Searcy said. "We don't have one guy hollering at you if you did wrong. We concentrate on the first play. No matter if it went right or wrong, we go on to the next one."

While there is no acknowledged leader in the group, Love, the man Coach Bill Cowher calls "a stabilizing force," might well be that leader.

After an angry departure from the Rams in 1992, Love seems to be enjoying it here. He still sponsors a golf tournament back home for a boys' and girls' club in Orange County. But he doesn't want to talk about the Rams.

"I've got nothing to say," he responded when the subject came up. "It's behind me now. If you don't have nothing good to say, don't say nothing."

Clearly, though, he didn't feel appreciated by his old organization.

Said Love in a 1993 interview: "When (Coach) Chuck Knox and his staff came on, they evaluated the team and decided they didn't need my services anymore. . . . As a 10th-round pick, I don't think I ever got my respect there. They always looked at me as a 10th-round pick.

"I play as good as other guys and other guys are making $750,000, $1 million and I always made less. I always felt like I was going to be in the same boat there. I never did get my just due. So I felt it was time to leave."

Everybody is giving Love his just due these days, except Strzelczyk, who gives him nothing but grief. In a good-natured manner.

With his huge size, thick beard, long hair and love of bikes, Strzelczyk looks more like a Hell's Angel than a Pittsburgh Steeler.

Asked if Strzelczyk fits in with the other linemen, Stephenson said, "I don't know if he fits in anywhere."

Stephenson remembers the Monday night game against the Buffalo Bills in Three Rivers Stadium when Kalis went down with an injury late in the game, which had started at 9 p.m. Pittsburgh time.

Strzelczyk trotted onto the field, leaned into the huddle and exclaimed, "Damn, you guys know what time it is? It's midnight."

It's now an anxious time for the normally unflappable Strzelczyk.

His wife, Keana, is due to deliver the couple's first child on Jan. 25. But if the Steelers should win on Sunday, labor will be induced on Wednesday so that Strzelczyk can watch the birth of his baby before leaving for Miami and the Super Bowl.

His first child and his first Super Bowl, both within a 10-day period. So who cares if nobody knows who you are?

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