Robinson: Steelers' offense has much to show in opener
Admit it. A week away from the first real game of the Steelers season, and you're still waiting for The Blowup.
You're certain it's going to happen, perhaps the very first time Ben Roethlisberger discards a play call to improvise, but his wide receivers are blanketed and he takes one more sack to add to the body-punishing 261 he's had the last half-dozen seasons.
As soon as it happens, offensive coordinator Todd Haley's face turns an Arizona Cardinals shade of crimson, and you just know he'll start screaming. This isn't Bruce Arians' offense, and there's no more pampering Big Ben. Roethlisberger isn't 23 any longer; he's 30, and he needs to understand that extending his career is more important than extending a few plays.
But has anyone considered this possibility: Haley, the same coach who brought out the best in Kurt Warner, Keyshawn Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, just might enhance Roethlisberger's career, and without the anticipated tumult and the shouting?
“Nobody on that ship is bigger than the Steelers' brand,” said Jamie Dukes, the longtime offensive lineman and NFL Network analyst. “Not to get too philosophical, but the volatility from Haley is a nonfactor. This is something that is much bigger than he is.”
Dukes also doesn't buy into the prevailing theory that Haley was hired to keep the Steelers from becoming another one of those throw-it-whenever-possible teams and transform them back into a more conservative, run-oriented team like they were in the Jerome Bettis days.
“Haley represents the best of both worlds — with Kurt Warner, he threw it 45 times a game and wouldn't blink, and with Kansas City he ran it 45 times a game,” Dukes said. “It's a concept of flexibility.”
The Steelers were run-heavy during their sixth consecutive 3-1 preseason under coach Mike Tomlin, but that's hardly a surprise. Wide receiver Mike Wallace held out until two days before the preseason ended, and Roethlisberger and the other starters simply didn't get enough continuous on-field time to develop the timing, rhythm and precision needed for a sophisticated passing game to evolve.
But if anyone thinks Roethlisberger is suddenly going to become a game-managing quarterback rather than a game-altering quarterback, that is not going to happen under Haley.
“I haven't had any of those talks with the organization,” Haley said. “We're going to play to his strengths but, at the same time, give him a chance to succeed on a down-in, down-out basis.”
In other words, throw the ball when it needs to be thrown, and run the ball when it needs to be run — and the game plan won't be based on philosophies, run-to-pass ratios, quarterback ratings or statistical quotients.
“We're a fundamental group, and we've been working hard on fundamentals,” Haley said. “We're a game-plan offense, and we're going to try to tailor our strengths against their weaknesses. And that's using the stuff that we have, that we've been practicing for the last five or six months.”
Plus some of the stuff they haven't been practicing, like the deep ball to Wallace. The Denver Broncos had better count on seeing a couple of those.
“Look at our preseason games. The one thing we've been needing is someone who can draw double coverage, always have a safety over the top,” safety Ryan Clark said. “Then you've got guys like Emmanuel (Sanders), Chris Rainey, Antonio Brown that can catch the ball underneath and have room to run and make plays. It also opens up the run game. When you talk about deep-ball guys, there's a few of them you really fear, and Mike belongs in that category.”
Despite all the speculation about how firmly he would deal with Roethlisberger's improvisational tendencies, Haley seems to be enjoying being an offensive coordinator again, and in his hometown.
He is hoping that the confrontation and controversy that dogged him in Kansas City the last three seasons are in the past rather than being in the offing, even if he is inheriting a quarterback who grew comfortable with another coach and another style.
“It is fun. You're getting to coach again,” Haley said. “As a head coach, you've got to worry about a lot of things that don't always pertain to coaching. As an offensive coordinator, you're pretty much nuts-and-bolts coaching, on one side of the ball. You don't have to worry about specialists or whether you're faking a kick or a punt or whether you're going for it on fourth down. You worry about putting guys in positions to succeed. That's what's fun for me. That's what I know.”
What Haley also understands is his offense will be judged greatly by how well or poorly Roethlisberger plays, starting with the opener in Denver. It's not only a national showcase for the Steelers, it's also the unveiling of the still-evolving Haley offense that Steelers fans have been waiting to see for nearly eight months.
“We're solely focused on one thing, and that's being ready to go out in Mile High,” Haley said. “It's going to be a big day for all of us, and we want to start good and come out of the gates rolling.”
And he didn't say come out of the gates running.
The week ahead
Latrobe is in the distant past; Denver is on the immediate horizon. The Steelers won't have to hear any Tim Tebow horror stories (that will wait until Week 2), but they're going to hear a whole lot about a guy named Peyton Manning.
This will be only the third time Manning has faced them in 10 seasons; the other two years he did (2005 and '08), the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl. Manning beat the Steelers in the regular season both years but lost to them in that unforgettable 2005 season playoff game in Indianapolis that was effectively decided by, of all things, a Roethlisberger tackle. That's something Haley and Roethlisberger did not practice this summer.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.