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Steelers are heading into NFL season facing plenty of questions

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley (center) saw his starters score one touchdown in four preseason games.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley (center) saw his starters score one touchdown in four preseason games.

The relationship between Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has played out publicly like an insipid drama.

It's a complex relationship that has overshadowed far bigger questions:

• How are the Steelers going to get the ball in the end zone? Will they lean on the run or the pass?

• With receiver Mike Wallace gone, who will surface as playmakers? Who among the rookies — including running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Markus Wheaton — will have a significant role?

The Steelers didn't answer all of those questions during the preseason. And they might not sort things out until Roethlisberger develops confidence and comfort with an offense that will kick off the season against Tennessee next Sunday at Heinz Field.

There is also the question of tight end Heath Miller, last season's most-effective weapon.

Miller, a Pro Bowl selection last year, could be out for some time. He suffered a similar knee injury as tight end David Johnson, who doesn't appear ready to play even a year after his season-ending injury during the 2012 preseason opener.

Miller accounted for 71 receptions and eight touchdowns last season, but he wasn't concerned whether his fellow tight ends can fill the void.

“There are a lot of good players on the roster every year. There are plenty of guys to make plays,” Miller said. “We just have to figure out how to play together and work as a team.

“With (Wallace) gone, it just creates opportunity for other guys. It's just about guys earning their opportunities and what they do when they get them.”

A year ago, it was easy for the Steelers to blame their shortcomings on Wallace's holdout and Rashard Mendenhall's injury. Or even a defense that seldom forced enough turnovers to shorten the field for an offense still under construction.

Most every starter on the offensive line was a regular on the injury list, which is one reason Roethlisberger sometimes took a beating. The Steelers didn't have a strong enough kick at the finish and lost five of their last seven games.

In an effort to take heat off Roethlisberger, the Steelers are hoping Bell can energize a running game that Isaac Redman and last season's leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, failed to consistently prop up.

The rebirth of the running game could be critical, especially if the offensive line struggles to keep Roethlisberger upright.

The Steelers are paying Antonio Brown big money to prove he can carry the load among a corps of receivers without much of a reputation.

“There's no added pressure,” Brown said. “The chips will fall in place, so it's time to go to work. Everything will come together.

“It's a challenge every year, so I don't buy into the questions about our offense. My job is to be productive, so we're not going to worry about who isn't here. I expect the best from everyone wearing a hat and do what they can to help the team win.

“Everyone has to wait to see what we're going to do. We are developing a repertoire offensively and the physicality with the run game that's needed to set up our passing game to be successful.”

Brown was able to see some single coverage last year because no team was willing to leave a speedster like Wallace in man coverage. Brown is now the go-to deep target, which puts greater pressure on Emmanual Sanders.

“We won't dwell on last year,” Brown said. “We are here to focus on now and the season this year.”

The Steelers have plenty of reliable hands on the flanks, which includes veteran Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Wheaton.

Wheaton was impressive in training camp, but the Steelers know there may be no substitute for Wallace's speed.

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