Posted by Ryan Wilson
The Steelers may have annual issues along its offensive line, but the passing game has been among the NFL's best during the Ben Roethlisberger era. Since drafting him 11th overall in 2004, Pittsburgh has ranked no worse than ninth in passing efficiency in six of seven seasons (as determined by the friendly eggheads at FootballOusiders.com).
But the outfit historically known for the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach to matriculating the ball down the field has been a mediocre running team over that time (their average rushing efficiency rank since '04: 14th in the NFL). If the first three weeks of the preseason is any indication, there's a great chance both units will improve in 2011, which is scary news for the rest of the AFC.
Roethlisberger has been near-flawless in three games that have no bearing on the standings but provide a glimpse of what's to come once the final scores count. He's 21 of 31 (67.7%) for 361 yards and four touchdowns, hasn't come close to throwing an interception, and his passer rating is an otherworldly 146.6. And while Ben's accustomed to showing well in the preseason, and having it carry over to the regular season (notable exceptions: offseasons involving near-death motorcycle accidents and league-sanctioned four-game suspensions), 2011 could be the year he unanimously joins the conversation as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 27: Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during a pre-season game on August 27, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Part of it will be because he's healthier than he was a year ago when the Steelers went 12-4 and lost to the Packers in the Super Bowl. But he also seems to be making better reads, throwing more accurately and playing with more poise. Oh, and not only is this the best group of pass-catchers Roethlisberger's ever seen in Pittsburgh, but arguably the most complete wide receivers corps in the league. (In regards to the former, the bar isn't particularly high -- this is a man whose three best wideouts during the 2005 Super Bowl season included Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson and Antwaan Randle El. The latter claim requires some justification, however, and that's what we aim to do.)
Roethlisberger still has Ward, but there's also the most explosive deep threat in the game, Mike Wallace; two young players who came out of nowhere to add depth as rookies last season in Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown; and recently signed Jerricho Cotchery.
A year ago, Wallace had 60 catches for 1,275 yards (a mind-blowing 21.0-yards-per-catch average) and 10 touchdowns. And while defenses would love to double- and triple-team him this season, they'll do so at their own risk because Brown has emerged as Wallace 2.0, but possibly more dynamic. He showed glimpses of talent during the second half of 2010, no play more memorable than his catch during the AFC Divisional Game against the Ravens, a 58-yarder on third and forever that sealed Baltimore's fate and Pittsburgh's place in the conference finals.
Heading into last offseason, Sanders was ahead of Brown on the depth chart. For the season, Sanders had 28 catches for 376 yards and two touchdowns, and played well enough to take the No. 3 WR job from Randle El. But a broken foot suffered during the Super Bowl, and a stress fracture in his other foot that required surgery earlier this month, has kept Sanders on the sidelines while Brown has played like a Pro Bowler -- he has nine receptions for 230 yards (a 25.6 YPC average) and three touchdowns in the preseason, and he also ripped off a 51-yard kickoff return to start Saturday's game against the Falcons. Brown finished the evening with four catches for 137 yards, including a pair of touchdown grabs, one for 77 yards, the other for 44 yards.
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Three years ago, shortly after the Steelers used their first two draft picks on running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked why the team chose not to bolster the offensive line to protect Roethlisberger. At the time, his response might've sounded flippant, but in retrospect, the man knew what he was talking about.
“There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback,” Tomlin said at the time. ”You can get linemen or you can get him weapons — people that people have to account for. Obviously with [the Mendenhall] pick, we’ve gotten a weapon. So what he is able to do on a football field will help our quarterback and our football team.”
The Steelers have drafted offensive linemen in early rounds since -- center Maurkice Pouncey made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year, and because of injuries, rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert has seen time with the first team this preseason.
But Tomlin's larger point remains: defenses can choose to blitz Roethlisberger silly because of Pittsburgh's unexceptional offensive line, but it'll come at a cost in the form of big plays. On the other hand, defenses can choose to crowd the line of scrimmage in the hopes that the Steelers run, something they did with alarming frequency on first downs during the first half of 2010 (some of that can be attributed to a Roethlisberger-less offense during the first month of the season). But the Steelers now have the weapons to do something other than run Mendenhall into an eight-man wall.
But the running game, which has lagged behind the passing game in recent years, could also be effective this season. Part of the reason is that Mendenhall and Isaac Redman continue to get better. But it's also because defenses can't just load up the box to stop the run, and double-team Wallace because Ward and Randle El couldn't beat a linebacker in a foot race.
The emergence of Brown and Sanders, to go along with zone-busters Ward and Cotchery, create the sort of mismatches that lead to a lot of big plays and a ton of points. It will also open up running lanes for Mendenhall and Redman.
Teams will continue to blitz Roethlisberger, at least early in the season, just because he welcomes contact and the line continues to be the offense's weakest link. But at some point in the coming months, defenses might have to rethink that strategy. Eight-man fronts and constant pressure could be a thing of the past, which is what happens when, as Tomlin pointed out back in 2008, you surround your quarterback with a bunch of weapons.
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