Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger strolls up to the line of scrimmage like a field commander surveying the enemy. He takes mental notes both of where the opposition is positioning itself, as well as the terrain around them, as though he's shuffling through a menu of strategies for the given situation.
He consults his wrist-band, not searching for a play but, rather, confirming it. Leaders take charge but they follow orders as well. Freedom of movement is bestowed upon him much as he gives pre-snap adjustments to his foot soldiers.
One big machine, the power of which rests at the finger tips, wrists and rotator cuffs of the general wearing No. 7.
Watching carefully, one can see almost a hurriedness to Roethlisberger's approach inside the 5-yard line. His Steelers have all but abandoned the notion of power running when they're in that close, instead electing to throw to a bevy of athletic receivers playing an angular and movement game.
But that was then. Now, Roethlisberger has at his disposal a new and not-so-secret weapon. Standing 6-foot-4 and possessing the athletic ability of an Olympic high-jumper, the weapon of Roethlisberger's desires, Soldier No. 10, Martavis Bryant, sits with space and the defense assumes an isolated look.
The enemy is daring the general to use his weapon. They're electing instead to cover Roethlisberger's short-but-impossibly-quick main target, Antonio Brown. He always throws to Brown. But force-feeding No. 84 the ball inside the 10 is what started the team's 1-for-7 red-zone slump that stalled their season. It was largely responsible for a loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a less-than-celebratory win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (the two teams have a combined two wins through Week 8).
Roethlisberger shifts his eyes off of Bryant, as if to look as cool as possible; like a poker player who flopped a nut straight, but still wants his opponent to feel confident. But he can't help adding that extra, slight twitch to his gait.
He's excited. His long-awaited "tall" receiver stands so tantalizingly close to the boosted stats of his colleagues. Other generals such as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have redwoods like DeMaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham - silky smooth and extraordinarily tall receivers who need little more than a defensive back playing legally to come down with high passes in tight spaces. Even division-rival Joe Flacco throws to big-bodied receivers in close.
General Ben has a bullet in Brown. He doesn't have a cannon like either Thomas or Graham. Or at least he didn't until now.
Bryant, the team's fourth-round pick out of Clemson was drafted after the general himself admitted to some frustration over what seemed like a cruel joke. Instead of a tall, physically imposing receiver being drafted among the team's first two picks (as well as media reports all but guaranteeing the team would select a height-heavy receiver in the first or second round), the Steelers shored up defensive holes at linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and defensive line (Stephon Tuitt). It seemed at the time the next position to be selected by the twice 8-8 Steelers would be either wide receiver or cornerback, the two most shallow positions on the field after the defensive front seven was addressed.
The announcement of selecting mighty-mite running back Dri Archer surprised many, and the general would say even angered him a bit. Nothing against the ultra-fast Archer, but Roethlisberger would have to wait until Draft Day No. 3 at the earliest for the Steelers to have a chance to select a receiver taller than 6-foot-1 - an attribute Roethlisberger hasn't been able to exploit for more than a few snaps a season since 2004, his rookie year.
Ben has been vocal about it too. He unintentionally got the notoriously thin-skinned Hines Ward up-in-arms early in his career when Roethlisberger made the suggestion he'd like a taller receiver. Ward, the team's perennial Pro Bowl pass-catcher is, at most, 6-foot-1. The Antwaan Randle-Els and the Cedrick Wilsons, or even the Nate Washingtons and Santonio Holmes, had produced at least fairly well alongside General Ben, but the lack of red- zone production seemed to mirror the team's general lack of scoring ability.
It would seem the rest of the league discovered the obvious evolution on this subject as well. From the mold of ex-Chiefs and Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, as well as the uptick in vertical passing, big, pass-catching tight ends became the rage in the NFL over the last five or six seasons. Suddenly, players like Graham - who still have played more organized basketball than football - became recipients of lob passes from quarterbacks who needed to only adopt a point guard' mentality - get it in high to the post and give your guy a chance to grab it - to see touchdown passes and scoring averages soar.
Ben never got that tight end but he did have the best tight end in franchise history. Miller meets the eye test in terms of size and, as good an athlete as he is, he would be complemented so well in the red zone with a longer, more explosively-leaping split end option to attack with from the seam, thus giving defenses a more balanced view of the twin-tower passing terror.
The Steelers had gotten on the clock for their pick in the fourth round. Whether the general awaited word from Congress concerning his long-standing request for a vertically stretched runner of vertical routes being fulfilled remains to be seen, but Roethlisberger was among the first in the organization to call Bryant upon his selection.
The only problem was, it would be so long before the weapon could be unveiled in combat.
An up-and-down preseason saw Bryant glide onto the field dripping with potential but covered in knots and rough edges. The weapon wasn't ready to be released on a more global scale, so the general would have to wait while helping to sand out those rough edges through hours of practice.
The only time Bryant's name was mentioned early in the season was on the weekly deactivation list, confirming the weapon was still filed inside of a red folder labeled "work in progress."
Ready or not, the weapon would be released upon the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. The first target the weapon would receive was a beauty, too. He broke up the team, his legs wobbled like a fawn, but his acceleration and grace matched the adult deer he'll soon become. He hauled in the pass from over his shoulder, a perfectly placed strike from the general, giving Bryant just enough space to get both feet down for the score. He would give a repeat performance against Indianapolis in Week 8, and it was clear the Steelers' game plan was to get Bryant the ball early enough to let him get comfortable. He had a target before the standard-issue weapon, Brown, was used.
Bryant would end up with two of them in the game, the first one, an easy-as-pie pitch and catch, the same kind of play his shorter receivers have made for years. Scoring is great, but it's not the highest-and-best-use for the new weapon.
This would come on Bryant's second red-zone catch. And the general knew he had the loft-pass available.
The general gave a subtle twitch when he saw the long-awaited, red-zone weapon standing split to the left with just one defender shading his inside. The general seemed to compose himself just enough to not tip off where he was going.
As if he was lighting a fuse, a deft series of motions followed - "Hike!" followed by receiving the ball, spinning to the laces, setting his feet, cocking his arm and getting the ball high enough to let the weapon do his thing.
The result couldn't have been more perfect. Bryant leaped, snared the ball over the defensive back, whose only mistake was playing it legally and not yanking Bryant down. Bryant got up and preened for the ecstatic crowd who saw yet another Steelers' touchdown that suddenly moved the team from red-zone wannabes to super-powers in the offensive arms race that is today's NFL.
The general's weapon passed the initial systems test with flying, acrobatic colors. Two throws, two scores and only two of dozens of highlights coming from the Steelers' offense in a 51-34 beating of visiting Indianapolis. Many of the other highlights won't likely be seen often enough during the second half of the Steelers' season, which begins against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9.
But the weapon will be used again. An unused weapon is a useless weapon. Bryant has been used well so far, and he's only getting started. No one could be happier right now than the general.