July 28, 2015
LATROBE, Pa. – At one point Monday, Ben Roethlisberger barked at a wide receiver and gave him the "come HERE" eyes – a pair of wide, angry dish saucers. A route was cut off, or rounded, or wasn't exactly where the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback wanted it. He made some hand gestures and gave a half-tilted look that read something like "don't make me tell you again."
After three Super Bowls, two championship rings, multiple Pro Bowls and 251 touchdown passes, this has become a very comfortable space for Roethlisberger. He is 33 years old, commandeering what should be one of the best offenses in football in 2015, and entering the home stretch of a Hall of Fame career. All of this generates a certain vapor of seriousness, an attitude really, associated with guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
"I want the guys to know exactly what I want them to do," Roethlisberger said Monday. "The running backs, the tight ends, the wide receivers, it doesn't matter what the coach wants them to do. The coaches will tell them the same thing, 'It's what Ben wants.' That's what matters when we're out there."
The elite quarterbacks get like this. They cross a boundary and the scheme contours to their design. Imagine a chess grandmaster who stops studying strategic manuals and begins writing his own. That's Roethlisberger now. Just like Brady, Manning and Rodgers. We sometimes overlook the fact that Roethlisberger belongs in that group. This season, this offense and this Roethlisberger has a chance to erase lingering doubts.
To be fair, it's early. Monday was the second day of training camp, a time when the NFL is brimming with possibility and every team teases what might be. And the Steelers are no different. They look good. The offense? It looks great. Like, blow-for-blow with anybody great. And it's greedy, too.
When offensive coordinator Todd Haley looked over last season, he was displeased with the missed opportunities. Particularly the first half of the season, when the Steelers see-sawed with inconsistency and sat 3-3 in Week 6. In that span, the coach grew frustrated at mistakes in the "Haley red zone," defined as the area where the Steelers could expect to score a touchdown or field goal.
The NFL defines the red zone as a scoring area 20 yards and into the end zone; Haley extends that to 35. Why? Because kicker Shaun Suisham has enough leg to hit 53-yard field goals. And every time the Steelers got to an opponent's 35-yard line and failed to score, it counted as a failure on Haley's charts.
"In those first six or seven games last season, we turned the ball over too many times once we got inside that mark," Haley said. "We took ourselves out of field-goal range with a penalty, a sack, [negative] plays where we actually didn't end up getting the points. … We left 30-plus points out there on what would have been easy field goals."
Factoring in those points, Haley arrived to an offensive meeting with a digit: 30. Specifically, he told Roethlisberger and the rest of the offense that the Steelers should average 30 points a game by eliminating the previous year's mistakes in his red zone.
Roethlisberger ate that meeting up. And why not? The Steelers have depth and versatility at running back (Le'Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer), experience at tight end (Heath Miller) and a wide receiving core that could end up being the league's best in 2015 (Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton). Not to mention an offensive line that improved considerably in 2014.
"If you ask me, we've got the weapons to do that, to average 30 a game – across the board," Roethlisberger said. "… I think Martavis is really going to make a jump. Same with Markus Wheaton. I think these guys are going to make big jumps."
Bryant in particular was explosive Monday, looking every bit of his bulked up 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. And word is that Wheaton has vastly improved his footwork and route precision. As for Brown, he managed a one-hand catch of a Roethlisberger sideline dart on Monday (while falling out of bounds) that would have made Odell Beckham Jr. jump out of his seat.
As Roethlisberger put it, "This is all fun. I'm the old guy who gets to sit back and watch these young kids be awesome."
Some other camp observations …
Rookie playing a role
It's too early in the preseason to figure out which rookies are going to play the most prominent roles, but the two guys I had my eye on Monday were first-round linebacker Bud Dupree and third-round wide receiver Sammie Coates.
Coates looks like he's got work to do, which shouldn't be a surprise considering the time he has missed thus far with hamstring issues. But I just don't know how many balls are going to be available to him after seeing Brown, Bryant and Wheaton. It's going to take a lot of progress and maybe an injury for Coates to get some real opportunities this year.
Dupree, on the other hand, was explosive rushing off the edge. He looks like a two-trick guy at this stage – either a pure outside rush, where he beats his man with the first step, or a punch and spin reminiscent of future Hall of Famer Dwight Freeney. He'll have to add at least a third dimension to that repertoire to keep tackles guessing, but he's off to a good start. In pass coverage? He's got work to do recognizing plays, but his closing speed will help in the interim.
Veteran fighting for a job
Wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey. Unless Coates falls flat on his face or there is an injury, he's (at best) No. 5 on the wide receiver depth chart. He's on a one-year deal that guarantees him little, and the Steelers also picked up former Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who is athletic and versatile and could get a lot better. Unless he can really prove his worth on special teams, Heyward-Bey will be on the bubble in early September.
Key guy in a contract year
Cornerback William Gay. In a secondary that has seen some losses (Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor), Gay will be looked upon to be a steadying influence on a unit that could face some growing pains. He is coming off a season where he returned three interceptions for touchdown, by far his best performance as a playmaker. At 30 years old, Gay should have one more solid veteran contract ahead of him. Plenty of playoff caliber teams angle to add cornerback depth with Gay's postseason experience. He's got an opportunity to make some money.
One extra point (OK, two) …
1.) Running back DeAngelo Williams was particularly agitated when asked how much mileage he has left after 10 years in the NFL, turning and asking a reporter, "Are you from around here? You're local, right? Yeah. I can tell. … I've got a lot of the tread left on the tires. I don't have as many miles as you just spoke of."
Williams suggested that "national" reporters know he has spent the larger portion of his career splitting carries with Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart … and thus has plenty of mileage left in his legs.
With all due respect to Williams, it was a fair question. He played six games last season with hamstring, thigh and hand injuries. He is 32. Unless you believe running back shelf-life is determinedonly by carry totals and hit accumulation, you've got to wonder how he'll look as a starter in Bell's absence. To his credit, Williams looks leaner than past years and sounds hungry as ever. We'll see how that translates.
2.) Two quotes that made me smile Monday:
• Head coach Mike Tomlin on his secondary winning some battles in practice: "Day 2. They're working. I'm not trying to convince myself that they're good."
• William Gay on the loss of leaders like Polamalu and Taylor: "Players leave. It's nothing new. Joe Greene left."