Steelers ready for dynamic offense to take flight
LATROBE — Todd Haley came up with the number. Ben Roethlisberger didn't see any reason to argue.
That's the number the relentlessly aggressive Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator believes his group can average in 2015.
It's ambitious territory for a franchise that has been playing for more than 80 years and only came within shouting distance of it once: when Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth led the NFL in scoring on their way to a fourth Super Bowl title in the 1979 season.
Even as Roethlisberger takes great pains to tamper expectations after he, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown forced a massive rewrite of the team record book following a spectacular 2014, he's not shying away from the challenge.
"We feel we can be as good as we want to be," Roethlisberger said Monday.
The offense will likely have to be for the Steelers to repeat as AFC North champions and make inroads against top teams such as New England and Denver.
With Pittsburgh's defense nearing the tail end of an identity shift as one generation gives way to the next, the franchise's identity and unquestioned strength lies in a quarterback at the peak of his powers and two of the game's emerging stars in the versatile Bell and the dynamic Brown.
"Obviously we're going to have teams gunning for us, teams trying to stop AB, trying to stop Le'Veon," Roethlisberger said. "But we want to be the best and we're going to keep striving to get there."
The Steelers are as close as they've ever been. Pittsburgh returns every starter and every coach from a group that finished second in the league in yards and seventh in points. Roethlisberger and Haley have developed an amicable rapport that includes plenty of give and take.
Now entering his fourth season with the call sheet in his hands, Haley has developed a flexible attack that can do everything from line up with two tight ends and a fullback and grind it out or spread out five wide receivers — including Bell — and let them go to work.
"When the coach lets you have a lot of fun, lets you have input, it's fun to participate in," Roethlisberger said.
And difficult to stop. Brown led the NFL in receptions and yards receiving. Bell was second in yards from scrimmage and caught 82 passes. When 6-foot-4 rookie Martavis Bryant worked his way off the inactive list and gave Roethlisberger the deep threat the Steelers needed to take some of the focus off Brown, the Steelers took flight.
Finished on a roll: Pittsburgh won eight of its last 10 games to capture the division, including consecutive victories over Indianapolis and Baltimore in which Roethlisberger threw a combined 12 touchdown passes.
After spending the better part of five decades becoming one of the league's most consistent winners behind a defense that wasn't affected by whatever unpredictable stuff Mother Nature threw up during December and January, the Steelers have evolved into a team that can look every bit as dangerous as whatever Peyton Manning or Tom Brady can draw up.
Still, plenty of work remains. There were games in 2014 when Shaun Suisham was kicking too many field goals after another drive bogged down.
The Steelers were 19th in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage, reaching the end zone barely half the time once they reached the opposing 20. New England, by comparison, was fifth.
"You name a category, and we'll say we want to get better at it," Roethlisberger said.
They will likely have to do it early in the season without Bell, who is appealing a three-game suspension following his arrest on DUI and drug charges last summer.
Ask Roethlisberger if there's a silver lining in having to play with Bell not in uniform because it would give other players a chance to develop and he flatly answers "no."
Pittsburgh signed veteran DeAngelo Williams — the leading rusher in Carolina history — to fill in. The 32-year-old Williams is eager to prove he's not finished at an age when most running backs are long past their prime. While Williams understands he's not quite as young as Bell, he's not sure that's a problem.
"I'm not as shifty as Le'Veon," Williams said. "That's why I'm here, as a change of pace back, but still get the job done and be productive. I can't change my running style."
That may be a good thing. The Steelers brought in LeGarrette Blount last season to fill a similar role only to have Blount pout his way out of town, getting cut in November after he became unhappy with his workload. That put more pressure on Bell, who missed the wild-card loss to Baltimore after hyperextending his knee in the regular season finale against Cincinnati.
If Williams is effective, that gives Haley and Roethlisberger another option they didn't have last season. And really, that's kind of the point. For all of last season's success, the Steelers haven't won a playoff game in nearly five years.
"We have to take it further," Brown said. "The pressure is on for us to be better."