Must be nice to have the luxury that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense has. You know, the opportunity for players who still haven’t reached their potential—likely due to lack of preseason repetitions—to gradually round into shape while the team is still winning.
Fans may bemoan the offense’s lack of consistency, but the team has back-to-back victories under their belts to start the regular season. The offense is starting to take shape, and the same can be said for two Steelers’ stars, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, who will figure prominently in the team’s performance this season .
These two stars, though improving, still haven’t reached the level of play that fans have come to expect from them on a regular basis. Realizing that better days are ahead for Bell and Bryant, you can just imagine the offensive boost when Bell starts hitting holes like he did in 2016 and when Bryant is taking the top off of opposing defenses and, in the process, opening up huge opportunities for Antonio Brown and company.
Gets me excited just thinking about it.
Time to check out the news surrounding the Black-and-gold beyond the walls of BTSC:
Le'Veon Bell averaged 157 yards from scrimmage per game last season. Through two games this season, Bell hasn't reached that figure yet.
That's OK, though, Bell said after the Steelers' 26-9 win against Minnesota in their home opener on Sunday. In Week 2, Bell was enjoying himself.
"You have more fun when you get the ball a lot," Bell said after 31 touches against the Vikings. "If I'm getting the ball, if it's coming to me three times in a row, it's fun, instead of going three possessions (not getting it)."
Bell's voice tailed off. Though he never went three consecutive possessions without a touch in a season-opening win at Cleveland, Bell didn’t get a carry or a target on three separate drives. Bell went the entire first quarter without a touch.
It was quickly apparent that this wasn’t going to happen again versus the Vikings. The Steelers opened in their "big" package with a fullback, a tight end and a tackle lined up as a second tight end. They also gave Bell the ball on the first two plays.
"We let them know, with our big guys, that we were gonna run it," Bell said. "That's the mentality we had."
Bell also was the ball carrier on each of the first two plays of the Steelers' second drive. He had six carries on a drive that lasted almost six minutes, resulting in the game's first touchdown.
In all, Bell carried the ball on the first play of nine of the Steelers' 11 possessions.
"It was nice to get him all those touches like that, to get him in the groove, to get him back used to running the football every play like that," center Maurkice Pouncey said.
For Martavis Bryant, it's all about read, react and roll the dice.
Bryant got the play call, saw the safety playing high, got inside on Minnesota Vikings cornerback Terence Newman and turned Ben Roethlisberger's slant pass into a 27-yard touchdown.
It was Bryant's first trip to pay dirt in 20 months, since the win over the Bengals in the 2016 playoffs.
No wonder he celebrated by mimicking a craps game.
“When you score a touchdown, it's always an accomplishment,” Bryant said. “It felt great, but I want more. I'm not just going to settle for one. I've got a long season, so I'm looking for more.”
After a season-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, Bryant had a breakout game in the Steelers' 26-9 victory over the Vikings on Sunday at Heinz Field. He had team bests in receiving yards (91) and scrimmage yards (98) while also drawing a 49-yard pass-interference penalty.
The scary part?
“He's going to continue to get better,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “What you saw wasn't a finished product.”
That's great news for a Steelers offense that seemed out of sync in the season opener at Cleveland but found its footing thanks to the impact Bryant made by forcing opposing defensive backs to pick their poison.
They can try to cover him deep, but covering the 6-foot-4, 218-pounder often leads either to a big pass play or a costly penalty, something Roethlisberger sees as an opportunity for the Steelers to make major gains.
“When he's behind people, DBs panic a little bit, which they did,” Roethlisberger said. “You either grab him, or he catches it. I told him, ‘Hey, we love the penalty and moving down, but we'll also take the catch.' He wants those yards, and we'll all take the stats on offense, but it's a big play. …
“Those are risk-reward things we'll take our chances with.”
The reward also has been beneficial for All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who is drawing less double- and triple-teams because of Bryant. Where Bryant had only two catches for 14 yards at Cleveland, Brown had 11 catches for 182 yards. Against the Vikings, Bryant had three catches for 91 yards, Brown had five for 62 yards and Le'Veon Bell rushed for 87 yards on 27 carries.
“It opens up more of the offense,” Bell said. “I think you can't really just take a guy like (Brown) out of the game. You can't just take our run game out. So you have to have a guy on the other side making plays. I think Martavis is putting it back on film. He's a guy that can be consistent, go out there and make plays.”
The Steelers believed their offense could average 30 points per game, but they’ve fallen far short of that mark through the first two weeks of the season. They only scored 21 points against the Browns last week and 26 against the Vikings on Sunday for an average of only 23.5 points per game.
That’s quite a difference from the offensive output that most envisioned for the Steelers given all the weapons they have. The Steelers have the best trio of quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the NFL. They have one of the best No. 2 receivers in the NFL in Martavis Bryant plus an offensive line that’s among the best in the league.
This should be a dominant offense but it isn’t. But this is no time to panic or even to be concerned about it. There’s nothing wrong with the Steelers’ offense that getting a couple more games under their belts won’t solve. The Steelers’ problem right now — and problem is a relative term considering they are 2-0 — is that they’re just not quite in sync yet. Their timing is still a little bit off and that’s held them back from making big plays both in their passing and running games.
Le’Veon Bell was awful last week against the Browns. He looked like a player who hadn’t played the game in a long time. He looked like he wasn’t on the same page as his offensive line. That’s not a surprise to anyone, though, because he missed the entire preseason. It takes a little bit of time for a running back to get back into their rhythm, and he’s way too good of a player not to figure it out.
Sunday against the Vikings, Bell was much improved and much closer to the Bell we’ve all come to expect. He was just a little bit off on a couple of plays that, later in the season, he’ll be hitting for long runs. It was easy to see that he was running with more confidence at Heinz Field and he seemed to have better chemistry with the offensive line.
When asked about the development of the Steelers’ offense, Bell said, “Slowly but surely. Obviously, we’re not there yet. I think we’ll get better at converting more third downs and obviously not hurting ourselves with penalties. We did a good job of protecting the ball, so that’s a plus from last week. Other than that, us putting up points, we still have a ways to go.”
Bell ran the ball 27 times for 87 yards which is an average only 3.2 yards per carry. Again, though, he was close to breaking a few runs for long gains, so it’s only a matter of time before he’s back to form. Some of his troubles can be easily corrected and some were due to the fact that Vikings have a strong front-seven and aren’t easy to run against.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, but he left some big plays on the field. He had a couple of missed opportunities to connect with Bryant and Antonio Brown.
All this is a sign that it’ still early in the season and teams are still working off their rust. As Bryant showed on Sunday, once he and Roethlisberger truly get on the same page, he’ll pose major problems for opposing secondaries. The Vikings have two strong cornerbacks who were able to cover both Brown and Bryant without a lot of help. Yet Brown still had 62 yards receiving for the game plus Bryant’s 91 yards and a touchdown.
Joe Greene, the Steelers’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, was on hand at Heinz Field to help celebrate the memory of the late Dan Rooney, serving as honorary captain before the game.
For most of the game, the Vikings must have felt as if Greene still was playing for the Steelers. At least, it certainly looked that way every time they tried to block defensive end Cam Heyward.
“Cam makes it happen,” said inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
“He’s pretty much unstoppable,” added inside linebacker Vince Williams.
“It doesn’t matter who we play,” said defensive end Tyson Alualu. “They’re going to have a hard time blocking Cam.”
The Vikings and their rebuilt offensive line couldn’t quite figure out how to control Heyward, especially in the first half when he was putting on a performance that looked quite similar to the way Greene dismantled offensive lines during the 1970s.
Heyward had six tackles before halftime, including two for negative yards, plus another for zero yards and another stop for just 1 yard. That’s four running plays that netted the Vikings a total of minus-6 yards.
On top of that, Heyward had two hurries on Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, who was filling in for injured Sam Bradford (knee).
It was a stirring performance on an emotionally stirring day on which the Steelers celebrated the memory of their beloved former chairman.
“I’m always fired up,” said Heyward, the defensive captain. “It’s the season opener, I got to play for Mr. Rooney. He wasn’t here and we missed him out there. I thought we played with energy.”
Martavis Bryant's first game back at Heinz Field since his season-long suspension in 2016 showed what the Steelers have been missing during his absence. His mere presence on the field forces defensive coordinators to make decisions on whether to keep their safeties back to help the cornerbacks cover deep routes, or bring them up to provide run support to stop Le'Veon Bell.
The Vikings chose the latter in the Steelers' 26-9 victory on Sunday, allowing Bryant to burn the secondary throughout the game.
Bryant had three catches for 91 yards and a touchdown, but the stat line doesn’t tell the full story. His efforts force cornerbacks in that coverage scheme to win downfield, and a missed tackle on a short pass can be the difference between an 8-yard play and a touchdown.
The Vikings discovered this when the Steelers scored their first touchdown of the game on a slant to Bryant for 27 yards. The Vikings had one high safety—a look they had often presented both before and during this game—and they used zone coverage to try and limit where the Steelers could throw the ball.
Bryant’s slant-route attacks the seam between the high safety and the cornerback, the normal soft spot of a Cover 3 zone scheme. His speed makes him untouchable after the catch when he gets that much room.