Steelers finding offensive balance
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Todd Haley has been criticized for crafting an offense that can't generate enough ground power to lift some of the burden off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Again, a troubled run game was largely defused by the New York Jets' defense during the Steelers' 19-6 victory at MetLife Stadium. Somehow, it was efficient enough — or posed some semblance of a threat — to loosen up the Jets' secondary.
Running back Le'Veon Bell had a career-high 16 carries but averaged only 2.1 yards. If nothing else, the Jets couldn't ignore him. As a result, Roethlisberger's play-action passes were largely effective against the Jets' blitzes and man coverage.
A patient Roethlisberger didn't bite off more than he could chew. Instead, he picked apart the Jets in the first half with short and intermediate throws to receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller, who combined for 11 catches before halftime.
The Steelers' air game was aided some by the Atlanta-Jets game film. The Falcons exploited the middle of the Jets' secondary; their receivers worked the boundaries to allow tight end Tony Gonzalez to exploit man coverage for 10 catches for 97 yards.
“We saw what Atlanta did (on film), but each week is different,” said Miller, who finished with six receptions. “I was able to catch a lot of balls, but much of that was the quarterback play was good all the way around.
“It's just the way things shook out. Ben did a good job of finding the open guy and putting the ball where it was supposed to be.”
Miller and Brown forced the Jets to deploy a cover-2 defense in an effort to narrow the wide seams in the middle of the field. Miller and Brown totaled 170 receiving yards, but 55 of Emmanuel Sanders' 70 yards on a play-action pass early in the third quarter enabled the Steelers to gain a 16-6 advantage in a defensive slugfest.
The Steelers' passing game has been relatively up and down, but it was remarkably efficient against the second-ranked defense in the NFL. Roethlisberger posted a season-best passer rating of 113.8, which was bolstered some by his third-and-1 touchdown strike to Sanders.
“It's starting to come around,” said Sanders, who caught three passes. “We're starting to gain some chemistry on the deep balls, but we have to continue to work at it. We have to make plays for this team to be successful.”
Admittedly, Roethlisberger was skeptical of Haley's call on third down, in part, because he wanted the offensive line to prove it could best the Jets' mammoth defensive front. Besides, it would have been a confidence-builder for a run game that has failed to reach 100 yards.
“I was a little hesitant at first, and I thought we should grind it in there because the (offensive line) had done a good job,” Roethlisberger said. “After we broke the huddle, I thought that this was a good play call and that it could be good for us.”
The Steelers came within inches of connecting on two other deep balls. In the third quarter, the ball slipped off Sanders' fingertips 40 yards downfield, and Brown couldn't corral a back-shoulder throw as he stumbled into the end zone.
“We were on our Ps and Qs and just getting open, but we need to get better,” Brown said. “It's what we're going to have to do if we want to win.”