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Big Ben’s Passing Fancy Has Steelers on the Verge of Something Special in AFC North

Steve Silverman

Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and NFL.com. Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.

When last we checked in with the Pittsburgh Steelers, head coach Mike Tomlin was sprinting off the field in Cleveland after his team was annihilated 31-10 by the Browns.

This was the ultimate in humiliation for this proud franchise. The Browns are to the Steelers what the heavy bag was to Joe Frazier. The Browns are supposed to be cannon fodder, and when you hit them with heavy body shots they simply don’t respond.

But the heavy bag is not just some inanimate object that can be slugged incoherently. Hit that bag the wrong way and you can break your hand or sprain your wrist.

The Steelers have always been married to old-school football. They want to pummel you with an old-school defense and then run the ball effectively. They have a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who is quite capable of shaking off the pass rush and hitting big throws downfield, but they have rarely displayed the kind of passing proficiency that would make you think of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning.

But the Steelers looked at themselves in the mirror after that loss in Cleveland in Week Six, and they came to the conclusion that the old ways don’t work any longer. At least not the way they currently play defense.

The conservative or balanced game only works when a team can play shutdown defense. The Steelers are simply too slow on that side of the ball and can’t stop teams the way they once did. The numbers say they rank 16th in yards allowed and 19th against the pass. The reality is even worse, because they give up big plays in key situations. Are you listening, Troy Polamalu?

Tomlin and offensive coordinator Dick Haley came to the conclusion that the Steelers were going to have to turn into a finesse offense that threw the ball to outscore their opponents.

Let’s repeat that. The Steelers are playing FINESSE football. The knock-your-head-off Steelers!

It took about one half for that gameplan to work against the Houston Texans in Week Seven, but the offense was hitting at warp speed Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s one thing to change your philosophy, but it’s quite another for a quarterback to have one of the greatest games of all-time, and that’s just what Roethlisberger did against an Indianapolis defense that had been starting to hit its stride before that game.

The Colts had blanked, bageled, and eviscerated the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Seven, and they were looking like a team that could eventually challenge the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots later in the year. They may still be able to do just that, but head coach Chuck Pagano has to destroy the tape of what Roethlisberger did against them.

Big Ben was magnificent as he completed 40-of-49 passes for 522 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. If Tomlin had wanted to keep his foot on the accelerator, Roethlisberger could have kept on chucking and would likely have blown by Norm Van Brocklin’s all-time record of 554 passing yards in a game.

Roethlisberger was simply magnificent, as nearly all of his passes were in a position where his receivers could catch them and then make a big play after the ball was secured.

Perhaps the only one who was not impressed with Roethlisberger’s effort was the quarterback himself, because he did throw nine incompletions. “There were other plays that could have been made out there,” he said.

But CBS analyst Steve Beuerlein did not find any issues with Roethlisberger’s play. “The bottom line is that right now, Ben Roethlisberger is in the zone,” Beuerlein said. “He is on fire. He is protecting the football, going up the field. His players are stepping up. It’s pretty impressive to see.”

Roethlisberger and Haley have not always been on the same page. They are now, and they have the weapons to take advantage of this aggressive gameplan.

Start with wideout Antonio Brown, who may be the most explosive big-play guy in the league right now. He has caught 60 passes for 852 yards and seven touchdowns, and he is capable of embarrassing nearly every cornerback in the league with his quick moves and explosiveness.

Tight end Heath Miller is as dependable as they get. He knows how to get open on third-down plays and he will not drop the ball when it comes his way. He has an emerging performer in Martavis Bryant, and running back LeVeon Bell is the perfect safety valve.

All of these receivers got open against the Colts, and while they may not be able to repeat that level of success going forward, they are going to be in a position to make a lot of big plays.

Tomlin looked at his team critically and came to the conclusion that they simply did not have the personnel on defense to shut opponents down any longer. Then he looked at the rest of his roster and devised an answer.

The passing game is working because Big Ben is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. They are going to keep feeding that beast as long and as much as they can.