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Harris: Steelers' offense, defense headed in different directions

| Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009

Everything that the Steelers' record-setting defense accomplished in 2008, stays in 2008.

In today's NFL, the best defense is a good offense.

If the Steelers' 37-36 win over Green Bay is any indication, we may never see another defense dominate the way the Steelers' top-ranked unit performed last season.

Start wrapping your mind around the idea that the Steelers' offense and defense are two ships passing in the night, with the offense replacing the defense in terms of importance.

Green Bay was ranked No. 2 in total defense entering Sunday's game at Heinz Field; the Steelers were No. 4. Yet those offenses combined for 73 points and 973 total yards.

On a cold day that was nearly perfect for the Steelers and Packers to showcase their respective running games, both teams combined to rush 31 times for 125 yards. Conversely, the Steelers and Packers completed a combined 54 of 94 passes for 848 yards.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for a franchise-record 503 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown pass to rookie Mike Wallace on the final play. Roethlisberger became only the third quarterback in NFL history to pass for 500 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.

More important, Roethlisberger's performance validated offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' long-held belief in the passing game that flies in the face of previous Steelers teams, which almost always featured the run -- no matter what the circumstances.

Prior to Sunday's win, Arians addressed his offense's struggles during the five-game losing streak, but he also emphasized the need to stay the course.

Short term, Arians acknowledged that maybe the Steelers should have run more on third-and-short in their 13-6 loss at Cleveland.

However, Arians took the long-term view on where NFL offenses are headed, despite some believing that the Steelers' should remain a run-oriented team.

"This is the only town that says that, and I understand," Arians said. "(But) we do have a dominant quarterback. A couple of weeks ago, I think we were fifth in the league in passing. We're not far off."

Don't take Arians' word.

Almost overnight, the NFL has evolved into a wide-open passing league, with rules favoring the offense and penalizing the defense. The league is essentially begging teams to pass against defenses ill-equipped to stop them.

If anything, the Steelers are late to the party.

"Nothing stays the same in this game," said coach Mike Tomlin, who's selling the passing game to a skeptical public. "Players are ascending and descending, people catch up with schemes; schemes evolve."

The evolution of the Steelers' offense has commenced at warp speed.

Tomlin's pass-happy offense is No. 6 in the league in passing, averaging 264.9 yards a game.

Last season, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, their passing game averaged 206.3 yards, ranking 17th in the league.

In 2005, when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL under Bill Cowher, their passing game ranked No. 24 at 182.9 yards a game.

The Steelers' current passing numbers would have produced a No. 2 ranking four seasons ago. The number of teams averaging 250 passing yards has increased from four in 2005 to a dozen this season.

League-wide evidence favoring the Steelers becoming a passing team are plentiful.

The teams with the NFL's two best records -- Indianapolis and New Orleans -- feature the No. 1 and No. 3 passing attacks, respectively. None of the teams with the top four rushing attacks -- New York Jets, Tennessee, Carolina and Miami -- have a winning record.

Roethlisberger has passed for 3,849 yards this season and is on pace for his first career 4,000-yard campaign. With two games remaining in the regular season, he could become one of eight quarterbacks to exceed 4,000 passing yards.

Three quarterbacks already have topped the 4,000-yard milestone this season -- the Colts' Peyton Manning, the Texans' Matt Schaub and the Saints' Drew Brees -- with the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots' Tom Brady, the Chargers' Philip Rivers, the Cowboys' Tony Romo and Roethlisberger all within 150 yards of the mark.

In 2005, Brady and Trent Green were the only quarterbacks to pass for 4,000 yards. That year, Roethlisberger passed for 2,385 yards.

This year, believe it or not, with another performance like the one he had Sunday, Roethlisberger would come awfully close to doubling that total.

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