DETROIT -- The problem: Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander.
The question: How do you stop him?
The Pittsburgh Steelers endeavor to find the answer, and what they come up with might determine the winner of Super Bowl XL.
Defenses haven't enjoyed much success against Alexander, who was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player after rushing for a league-best 1,880 yards (5.1 per carry) and establishing an NFL record with 28 touchdowns (27 rushing). He ran for more than 100 yards in 11 regular-season games and had 132 against Carolina in the NFC Championship Game a week after suffering a concussion.
"The guy has been Mr. Consistency," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "He has a great offensive line, but he deserves a lot of credit, too. He runs hard and he gets stronger the more he gets it. When he gets rolling he can be hard to stop."
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Alexander combines good size with deceptive speed and elusiveness. He has great vision through the hole and is instinctive enough to know where creases will develop.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Alexander's game is his ability to maintain his balance after contact.
"He just doesn't go down," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He has a very strong center of gravity. His sense of balance is tremendous. And when you see a lot of guys go on the ground, he's not on the ground. He keeps going forward. A lot of that I think comes from inside of the man, but a lot of it may be God-given, too."
Alexander is just beginning to gain a lot of national recognition, but his entire six-year career has been worthy of attention. This past season was his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign and his third straight with more than 1,400 yards. He won his first rushing title after falling a yard short last season.
His knack for getting into the end zone is remarkable. He has scored 100 career touchdowns (89 rushing) and is the only player in NFL history to record five consecutive 15-plus touchdown seasons.
"I never really felt like I was completely overlooked," said Alexander, who doesn't mind being overshadowed by Pittsburgh running back and Detroit native Jerome Bettis this week. "For me, it's never been about trying to let people know who I am or trying to prove that I am one of the best. I've never gotten into that. All I care about is winning."
The Steelers know the Seahawks' chances of winning the Super Bowl improve greatly if Alexander has a big day. When he runs well, it opens up a number of possibilities for Seattle's varied offense.
If the Steelers are overly concerned about their task, they aren't showing it.
"It's not going to take some super-human effort," said Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. "I'm confident in our defense, and if we play the way we can, we can get the job done. We don't have to have one person do something extraordinary. It's going to take all of us doing our jobs, and taking care of what we have to take care of."
The Steelers' confidence in stopping the run is warranted. While the Seahawks have broken teams with Alexander, the Steelers have broken running backs with similar talent.
The Steelers shut down the likes of San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson, New England's Corey Dillon, Baltimore's Jamal Lewis and Chicago's Thomas Jones during the regular season and locked down Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson, Indianapolis' Edgerrin James and Denver's Mike Anderson in the playoffs.
The ability of the Steelers' down linemen to control gaps and the speed of their pursuing linebackers and strong safety Troy Polamalu have been the keys to the defense allowing an NFL-low 3.4 yards per carry and 86.0 yards on the ground (third in the league).
Pittsburgh has allowed only one 100-yard rusher in the last 32 games, and only five of the Steelers' 19 opponents this season have managed 100 yards rushing. In three playoff wins, the Steelers are yielding an average of 79.7 yards rushing.
"They're very fast, they play very aggressive, they like to pack in the offense and they kind of force you to be one-dimensional," Alexander said of the Steelers' defense. "It's one of those things where we have a great challenge in front of us, but that's the greatest thing I've really enjoyed about this year is that we've been a team that accepts challenges game after game."
As good as the Steelers' run defense is, Seattle won't be intimidated out of its running game. It does have the league's third-ranked attack, after all.
Only once did the Seahawks have fewer than 22 rushing attempts. They ran 51 times for 190 yards against a very stout Carolina defense during the NFC Championship Game.
Yet there's a perception that the Steelers are more physical than Alexander and the Seahawks' running game. Seattle says it may be a lot of things, but soft is not one of them.
"Pittsburgh, I think, has the tradition of being just a blue-collar, 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team from the '70s," said Seahawks Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. ". . . But I don't think you can play in this league and not be physical. It's a physical game and I think you've got to line up and go at teams. I think we've done a pretty good job of that this year."