Pittsburgh Steelers  


Continued focus on run will help Roethlisberger's effectiveness

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Even though a strong case could be made for the Jets and a few other teams, I believe the Steelers are the best team in the league through six weeks. Pittsburgh gets the nod because of how well it played without Super Bowl MVP Ben Roethlisberger, who has now returned to bolster the offense.

While he was gone, the team got back to its roots of running the ball and playing great defense. After watching the gameplan unfold in his return last Sunday, there is much to like about this team.

First-down play-calling
Year Run percent Yards/carry Pass percent Yards/pass

Take a look at the run-to-pass ratio on first downs. As you can see in the chart to the right, the Steelers got away from the run game from 2007-09. Granted, the yards per pass attempt went up, enticing the Steelers to move more in that direction, but this year paints a different picture.

Pittsburgh had to protect the backup quarterbacks that were on the field while Roethlisberger was gone, causing it to focus heavily on the run game. The Steelers have rushed the ball 72 percent of the time on first downs to the tune of 5 yards per carry.

Running the ball more for a higher average -- now that's getting it done.

With Roethlisberger back, the Steelers were expected to return to the 2009 pace of a 50/50 ratio. That did not end up happening. Instead, they ran the ball 22 times on first down (76 percent), while passing just seven times. They lead the NFL with a 73 percent run-to-pass ratio and the run average is higher than it has been since 2007. The passing numbers are up as well at 9.7 yards per pass.

Bill Cowher told me the other day while watching Roethlisberger handle the offense, "the first-down gameplan is really going to help Ben get to manageable third downs and he will be even more effective."

Keep in mind, Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times last year. Eleven of those sacks came in two games against the Browns, in which he threw just two touchdowns in 67 throws.

Roethlisberger wasn't sacked once in 27 passes, and he connected on three touchdowns last Sunday. Cowher and I agree that the new balance in the offense will only enhance Roethlisberger's passing production. Big Ben was 5-for-7 on first-down passing for 104 yards and 15 yards per attempt. Believe me, upcoming opponents will struggle with this offense.

Roethlisberger will also improve the Steelers in the red zone, where he went 4-for-6 and connected on two of his three touchdown passes. Roethlisberger threw 16 touchdown passes in the red zone last year and appears to be as sharp as ever already.

Rashard Mendenhall had four rushing touchdowns in the four weeks Roethlisberger was gone, and the Steelers were facing a Browns team that had not given up a rushing touchdown. With a first-and-goal situation a year ago, Roethlisberger may have taken a few shots at the end zone. This year, Pittsburgh brought in an extra offensive lineman as a tight end and 2 yards later, the Browns gave up their first rushing touchdown of the year.

Ben Roethlisberger had five 300-plus yard passing games last year, and before this season is over, he'll need a few more. In the fourth quarter last year, Roethlisberger was 80-for-125 with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Last week, he was 4-for-8 with a touchdown in the fourth quarter. All signs point to him being even better this year because of his physical conditioning. Additionally, if he's not taking the normal beating he takes with sacks (242 in 88 games), he will have the stamina to do an even better job late in games.

One interesting dimension to Roethlisberger's game is how he plays on the road, given the abuse he might receive from fans for his off-field problems. In the last three years he has a 12-10 road record, and last year he threw more touchdown passes on the road (14), than at home (12). His first 2010 road game comes Sunday in Miami, incidentally the last place he played prior to his off-field problems.

He threw three touchdowns in that game on just 27 passes. That's the same number of passes and touchdowns he threw this past week.

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Roethlisberger has always been known for the big play in the passing game, and the Steelers were third with 64 passes of 20-plus yards last season. He looks like he's right back where he left off with four passes over 20 yards last week to four different players. As one Steelers player said to me this week, "His arm is fresh and never looked stronger."

Cowher added, "Time will validate Roethlisberger, and he will ultimately be judged by his actions over a long period of time."

In the meantime, he looks poised to lead an already very good football team to the top of the NFL. He better be ready with three straight road games against Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati before returning home to play the Patriots.



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