Harris: Ben, offense finally finding balance
By John Harris
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Call me confused.
Ben Roethlisberger is back. So why were the Steelers in their must-win mode against the Oakland Raiders?
The Steelers offense faced a crossroads in Roethlisberger's sixth game, which surprised me.
When Roethlisberger replaced Charlie Batch, we were told the offense would take off. That combining Ben with a historically strong defense would automatically make the Steelers a team to be feared. And that even if the defense slacked off, Roethlisberger's big-play ability would make the difference.
If Michael Vick can elevate the quarterback position in Philadelphia while also repairing his reputation, Roethlisberger can do the same with the Steelers.
So what gives with all the teeth-gnashing following last week's loss to New England? So what if Tom Brady picked the defense apart? The Steelers have their own Brady in Roethlisberger.
Working with a private quarterback coach during his four-game suspension, Roethlisberger left nothing to chance. He was focused, in the best shape of his career and ready to put the past behind him.
That's why I'm confused. Instead of the offense taking off under Roethlisberger, it was at a standstill before Sunday's impressive 35-3 blowout win at Heinz Field.
It was good to see. But why did it take so long?
It shouldn't have taken six weeks for the offense to dominate while finally blending the pass and run. And not so fast. Even after passing for 275 yards, rushing for 55 more and totaling four touchdowns with no interceptions against the Raiders, Roethlisberger said he wasn't impressed with the effort.
"It's funny, because if you ask me, I felt like we didn't have a good offensive performance," Roethlisberger said. "I felt that we were OK."
Uh-oh. Here we go again.
There's always something with this offense. Either injuries or penalties or flat-out confusion about whether the Steelers are a passing team or a running team.
Compared with the defense, the offense needs a hug from Dr. Phil.
Love it or hate it, you know what you're getting from Dick LeBeau's defense. They're going to play a 3-4, no matter what. They're going to stop the run first and take their chances against the pass. Even when they're missing injured starting defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, they can suck it up and limit Oakland to no touchdowns and 182 total yards.
The Steelers offense has a split personality. Running back Rashard Mendenhall was featured heavily through the first four games. As a result, Mendenhall responded with two 100-yard rushing performances and ranked among the league leaders.
The offense ran to set up the pass the way it did under former coach Bill Cowher. Everyone knew their role.
When Roethlisberger returned, roles changed.
Mendenhall's role was diminished. He hasn't rushed for 100 yards in the past six games.
Clearly, the offense is built around Roethlisberger. The Steelers aren't paying him all that money to hand off to Mendenhall.
Sunday's game was a good start. It was an opportunity to fulfill the lofty expectations set for Roethlisberger -- something to build on for the remainder of the season.
Roethlisberger said last week that he and veteran wide receiver Hines Ward decided to become more vocal leaders. That surprised me. I naively assumed that Roethlisberger's two Super Bowl victories and $102 million contract validated his leadership status. Even though he wasn't voted a team captain this season, money talks.
Mike Tomlin was quick to discuss Roethlisberger's leadership role for one of the few times in his coaching tenure following the Oakland win. Roethlisberger seconded Tomlin's words.
"That's what we need from guys that have been here before," Roethlisberger said about becoming a more vocal leader. "When guys do that, you see the younger guys start to go with it."
The Steelers don't have their full complement of offensive linemen, so that probably means Roethlisberger will have to watch his back when dropping back to pass. He displayed his full arsenal of accurate throws and timely scrambles against the Raiders. It was good to see. The Steelers will need to see even more from their franchise quarterback to be all they can be.
John Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org