After a giddy opener and abberation wind-game in Cleveland, we learned in weeks three and four (Philly and Baltmore) just how vulnerable we were on the offensive line. Our quarterback was a fish out of water and the game plans and plays we thought were going to be a major part of the arsenal were in need of dramatic overhaul. While the rest of the offensive was never perfect, including Ben, Bruce Arians and the rest, slinging arrows at them was blaming the symptoms instead of the disease.
The next five games saw the entire offense and coaching staff make changes in an attempt to play to our capacity given the line situation. Beginning with Jacksonville, the short passing game became a focal point. In fairness to the line, Ben Roethlisberger is not the type of quarterback who makes mediocre or below average lines look better. To the contrary, he makes them look worse. Ben like time to consider downfield options and he holds the ball long in order to make plays. Neither of those traits is friendly to an offensive line.
The Steelers won three of those five games, including two road games against solid ballclubs (Jaguars and Redskins). At home against the Giants and Colts, the Steelers had fourth-quarter leads, relinquished them, and were stonewalled from final counterpunch. These games were frustrating more than just the loss. They were demoralizing because our offense had no ability to answer in the second half.
Still, you could see the Steelers morphing into a different offensive identity. Ben is getting more and more comfortable taking two or three steps and letting loose. His short, quick passes are getting more crisp and thrown with more confidence. He is looking more like a fish in different water than out of water. We're seeing less of Santonio Holmes and the home run ball and more of Hines Ward and possession ball. That's what our offensive line allows us to do.
I was hoping the San Diego game was going to be the beginning of a new level. We certainly wanted to put those two straight home losses in the rear-view mirror. I walked into Heinz Field wanting three things (in addition to the obvious W). First, I begged the offensive line to improve just one inch. They might have improved two in my mind. Max Starks is looking more like a back-up than a starter, especially in pass protection, but Justin Hartwig is improving as the centerpiece, playing in between two first-year starters. Second, I really wanted to see Ben look more comfortable in the short, mix-em-up game. He did that. His "new game" is looking better in part because he is practicing more of late. Third, I wanted FWP to be healthy enough to show us all how badly we need him. He did that. He also gave the beleaguered line the opportunity to feel good about giving him a crease or two. Willie made yards on his own Sunday, but only after the line got him to the second level.
All games are "big games," so I hesitate giving the San Diego game a label we use every week anyhow. But I will. That game went beyond the W and could be a pathway for things to come. After the San Diego field goal I stood up and cheered with enthusiasm. The guy in the seat next to me said "now's the time you usually shake your head in disgust." Not this time. It had a different feel. Had Jeff Reed shanked that final boot, I would still feel OK about the way the offense played (although admittedly it would have been harder to write).
Next game we need one more inch of improvement, one more inch of cohesion, one more inch of anything, from the offensive line. Out line might still not be capable of winning a playoff game, unless the defense flat outscores the opposition. Just one inch at a time, baby. We also need to see Ben continue to look sharper with the three-step speed game. In the meantime, the receivers, tight ends and running backs are also getting more comfortable with a new style of offense. And Willie, stay healthy in order for the line to do what it does better, and that is run block.
There are no style points in the NFL. You either win or lose. But once the W is tucked in the back pocket, I do look at style. Style can show us the substance of the future. The fact that the offense scored only three field goals means nothing to me. It was a quirky game all the way around. Such is life in the NFL. The fact that all three of my wishes came true means much more to me.