Sunday, August 25, 2013

Passing issues at arm’s length

By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Saturday, August 24, 2013, 11:18 p.m.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) gets away from Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the first quarter of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) gets away from Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the first quarter of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, in Pittsburgh. Photo: Don Wright/AP
The last of the unopened boxes from the Steelers' bus ride from St. Vincent to the South Side was, of course, the one containing the passing game. Or, to be precise, the one in which the passing game was containing itself.
Let's face it: Partial playbook or not, all the first-team offense had shown through two moribund preseason games was a dink here, a Dwyer there and not much at all downfield. And there had to be at least a little apprehension, a little angst, especially in light of no longer having mainstays Mike Wallace and Heath Miller.
Yeah, that's how it felt Saturday night against the Chiefs at Heinz Field, too.
For a snap, anyway.
Because on the second play from scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, spotted Antonio Brown sprinting down the left sideline behind corner Sean Smith, and away it went: 49 yards, first down … and maybe even simmering a few fears.
If that wasn't enough, Roethlisberger would go 13 of 19 for 166 yards with a touchdown, no picks and — the key here — seven completions for double-digit gains in one half of football.
Dig deeper, and there's more: On back-to-back plays in the second quarter, Roethlisberger hit Jerricho Cotchery for 21 yards, Emmanuel Sanders for 24. Brown had a 25-yard catch nullified by penalty. Sanders nearly had a 34-yard touchdown but juggled it on the way down. The wonderful rookie Markus Wheaton rightly made it into Roethlisberger's huddle, too, and took in a 12-yarder.
Ask me, and nothing mattered more from the 26-20 overtime loss to the Chiefs, certainly not the hollow outcome. This team is still all about Roethlisberger, all about getting the most it can from him.
“We were a juggling catch away from a very productive half offensively,” Mike Tomlin said.
Did I forget to describe the TD?
Thing of beauty.
Roethlisberger looked left, looked middle, stepped up, dodged a defender, felt another breathing down his back and then coolly, characteristically, looked all the way over to the right flat to find Jonathan Dwyer for an untouched 13-yard gallop across the goal line.
Roethlisberger wasn't available to media, but Brown told me the Steelers came out with a purpose: “Absolutely. Everything we did tonight was a building block, for us to develop a rhythm as we transition to when things count. There's a lot more to show, too.”
As for the play itself …
“We knew that team would come out in man coverage,” Brown said. “It was a great read by Ben and a great throw. Just a good connect.”
Ben being Ben?
Well, if it seems we're seeing a lot of that this preseason — the good and bad, if one fairly weighs the four sacks — it can't be coincidence. These plays don't even vaguely resemble the Todd Haley pocket-passer script the Steelers used for the first half of 2012 to mostly good effect.
To an extent, that's ominous. There can't be any doubt the Steelers' No. 1 priority through 2013 is Roethlisberger's health.
At the same time, if last season taught anything from the performance and production standpoint, it's that … well, Ben needs to be Ben. It's his offense. He's the star, and this is how he's most comfortable. He can't be a couch covered in plastic to avoid the next spill. He can't be bounded up in a box behind the line, required to release or relent within 2-3 seconds. He's got to be used in the way he's most effective, most intimidating.
Don't underestimate that last point. In all the times I've interviewed the Steelers' opponents on game week, Roethlisberger's unpredictability dominated the conversation. Even when he was hurt. Even when the team was reduced to that one dimension. They feared the unknown.
Football coaches just hate the unknown.
They also hate losing, which explains some of the somewhat forced angst over being 0-3 this preseason. Ryan Clark was among them, saying, “The objective is to win, and we didn't do that.”
Nice show, but come on. This was more solid all-around, including the all-important shoring up of the offensive line. Those long plays don't click without a few extra ticks.
Here's what's relevant from this one: For the preseason, Roethlisberger likely finished up — Tomlin rarely uses his main men in the finale — at 14 of 20 for 168 yards with a touchdown and pick.
Not terrific, not terrible, but very Ben-like.
Still nervous?
If so, here's betting the Titans' defensive planners are sweating it even more.

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