Inside the NFL  

 

Ben Roethlisberger, Todd Haley getting along just fine in Year 3

Print

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» Why the NFL's most notable deadline trade makes perfect sense.
» Peyton Manning's real adversary on the Patriots.
» A progress report on the top 10 picks from a loaded draft class.
And much more, beginning with the growth of a vital relationship in Pittsburgh. ...

Todd Haley regularly texts with his old Arizona Cardinals quarterback, Kurt Warner. And the erstwhile gunslinger knows the Steelers offensive coordinator isn't subtle, but this particular declaration, coming across after Pittsburgh's 51-point statement last Sunday, went just far enough to rankle him.

"I told him it's the best game I've seen from a quarterback," Haley explained, during another late night of work this week prepping for the archrival Baltimore Ravens. "And it really was. It was the best quarterbacked game I've ever been a part of."

Warner retorted with his 2009 playoff win over Green Bay. Haley reminded him he was gone by then.

And even if you threw that one in, it's hard to imagine Haley would concede the point, given what Ben Roethlisberger did in hanging half-a-hundred on Indy, in part because it was as much a culmination as it was a conquest.

"He's the centerpiece of everything we do," Haley said. "This year, we've shown flashes, and I'm talking about everyone in the building offensively. I felt like we'd have a chance to be real good, and it was a matter of it coming together. We're fortunate to see that happened on Sunday for Ben, and everyone. It's been a process, but the arrow has continued to point up."

For the two focal points in this story, it's been anything but smooth sailing getting here.

The Steelers missed the playoffs in 2012, Haley's debut campaign as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, and again last year -- the first time that's happened in consecutive seasons since the turn of the century. Pittsburgh lost Mike Wallace after Haley's first year, and Emmanuel Sanders after his second. And seven of the nine guys with a catch on Sunday were acquired after the offensive coordinator's February '12 hiring (exceptions being the rock solid Antonio Brown and Heath Miller), as were three of the five offensive linemen who started.

So Roethlisberger and Haley had some fits and starts before Sunday's galactic effort? To that, Haley would defiantly say ... So what?

"We're both easy targets," Haley said. "And (Haley's predecessor) Bruce Arians is a good friend of his, so that made it an easy subject to write about or talk about. Our relationship, it's no different than any relationship. You work together, it's gonna take time to develop trust, to get to know each other inside and out. I think it's gone like a lot of my other relationships in football. It's a very respectful -- if not more than that -- relationship."

All eyes were there when this story began, but there was a lot more to it for Haley. He was coming home, to the place where his dad, Dick, ran the personnel department for 20 years, overseeing the four world championship rosters of the '70s. He says that even now, "There's not a game day that goes by where I don't say, 'Man, this is cool.' "

The flip side is, thanks to a salary cap crunch, the aforementioned change was coming and everyone knew it. The offensive line was a problem. Sanders and Wallace would need to be replaced (hello, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant). And the backfield was due for an overhaul (Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are now making up for their August indiscretion).

Thanks to general manager Kevin Colbert's drafting and Haley and his staff's developing ... Check, check and check.

And that brings us back to the quarterback, which was the most important box to mark off on the list.

"It was definitely a unique challenge," Haley explained. "It wasn't a situation where I was coming in to fix the quarterback. He was a great player before I got here. But the landscape is always changing, and there's a reason I was brought in, and a reason the spot was available, and I got the opportunity."

Haley didn't want to coach what he calls "Ben plays" -- Sunday's second-quarter scramble bomb to Antonio Brown was one of those -- out of his quarterback. But he did want Roethlisberger to pick his spots better, and by situation. As the OC explains it, it can be as simple as being conscience that when you're at the 30, a sack could knock you out of field-goal range, whereas at the 10 or the 15, it's OK to incur more risk.

Of course, when the offense scores six touchdowns, as it did Sunday, the little things don't get press.

But Roethlisberger wound up 40-of-49 for 522 yards and six scoring strikes, and by Haley's count, four of the nine incompletions were drops, and another was an aborted screen.

"The great players, you wanna feel like they're getting better because they're getting more cerebral," he said. "That's where you see guys like Peyton (Manning) and Tom (Brady) keep taking steps. That's where Ben continues to get better."

The offense has, too. The Steelers are now with the Saints as the only teams in the NFL that rank top 10 in total offense, pass offense and rush offense, and Pittsburgh is also top 10 in yards per pass play, yards per rush and first downs per game. Accordingly, Roethlisberger is on pace for career highs in yards, completion percentage, touchdown passes and quarterback rating -- and a career low in interceptions.

Not bad for a couple guys who, just a few weeks ago, were criticized inside football circles and out. "My kids keep me informed on Snoop Dogg," Haley joked. "They said he has 11 million followers. So I'll follow the old Jerry Jones rule: All publicity is good publicity."

And, at least for right now, it looks like everything is all good within the offense in general and, more specifically, between Roethlisberger and his coordinator. The two even golfed together at Roethlisberger's charity tournament in the offseason, with Haley (who played the game collegiately at Florida) taking the front nine, and the quarterback winning the back nine and the round. Just as he has with this circumstance, Roethlisberger kept swinging and, eventually, got it right.

"The important thing is we haven't let it tear us apart," Haley said. "We've continued to build our relationship through the ups and down, and the stuff that lands in the spotlight. And we have a common goal -- to get to that trophy game and win it."

That's still, of course, a long way off. But clearly, these two have already made up a lot of ground.

Four downs

1) Rams dive in the dumpster for a diamond. There's a principle in player acquisition -- often attributed to Jimmy Johnson -- that identifies rosters under a regime change as a place to uncover value, and that explains best what St. Louis did in dealing for safety Mark Barron, the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft. Where Tampa Bay saw a misfit for Lovie Smith's scheme, the Rams' front office watched his '12 and '13 tape, from before Smith's arrival, and saw a defensive back with a specific skill set that would fit perfectly into a) Gregg Williams' attacking defense and b) a division that demands that safeties can attack and take down big backs. St. Louis also played against him at the end of last season (under Greg Schiano) and the beginning of this one (under Smith), so the Rams had applicable familiarity with his strengths and weaknesses. "We thought he was a good system fit," said one Rams source. "And he's just 25, so there's plenty of room for growth." With Barron's size, long arms, nose for the ball and ability to play the run, St. Louis sees him as a player who can toggle between safety and some nickel linebacker and be a valuable chess piece. The Rams have him for $902,719 this year, $2.36 million next year and could have him for around $8.25 million in 2016, if they exercise his option. That adds up to a little more than $11.5 million. By comparison, Barron's bookend at safety in Tampa, Dashon Goldson, is making $9 million this year alone, which explains vividly why Barron was easier for the Bucs to move. And yes, this knocks the Rams down to five picks for 2015. But as the league's youngest group, there's less of a need for the middle-of-the-roster talent that fourth- and sixth-round picks generally become.

2) Tom Brady's appreciation for the rivalry. I've written before that -- because of the frequency of the matchup, and the consistently high stakes -- I don't think any quarterback rivalry in NFL history is even in the ballpark with Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Both quarterbacks showed appreciation for how special each of these battles are this week, hedging a little from the business-like approach both normally spew in the face of that talk. So I went to Brady's dad the other day to gauge what makes those two tick during a week like this. "I think they've developed a very nice personal relationship off the field," Tom Sr. said. "That said, they get out there, and they wanna kick each other's butt. It's two guys that experienced something that not many others have accomplished. And I think they appreciate each other for what the other has accomplished. Neither guy backs down; they're both still at the top of their craft. The game itself? I don't know that the game itself means more ..." That's where the elder Brady stopped himself. "That's wrong. The game itself probably does mean more. The winner gets a leg up for when it really counts, in January." And while Tom Sr. acknowledges that these glory days won't last forever, some of the talk of his own son's football mortality back in September was enough to irk him a little. "Some jerk said he's been in decline for five years. Some people ... It just doesn't make sense. He said to me, 'I'm stronger, bigger, faster and smarter than I was 10 years ago. I can throw the ball better.' Maybe someone else's reaction time wouldn't be there like it once was, but he said, 'I'm way better than I was 10 years ago.' I tend to trust my son more than some outside guy. Metrics only tell a certain story." Suffice it to say, Brady's family is ready to go for Sunday.

Harrison: Week 9 predictions
While Manning vs. Brady takes center stage, Elliot Harrison eyes other factors in Broncos-Pats. Check out his Week 9 picks. READ

3) Lions roaring out of London. To be sure, the biggest benefit of Calvin Johnson getting a month off is the time the superstar receiver gets to heal an injury, in his high ankle sprain, that carries a high risk of recurrence. But the side benefit isn't too shabby, either: Johnson's always lacked a true Robin to his Batman, and the time away forced others into more prominent roles. The first one is obvious. Golden Tate didn't come cheap in the offseason, and he responded to the circumstance by showing he could be more than a receiver siphoning catches out of coverage built to stop someone else. The last five weeks wound up representing the most productive stretch of his career (39 receptions, 599 yards, three touchdowns), and he goes into this week's bye with a new level of chemistry and trust with Matthew Stafford. And then, there's Corey Fuller, who spent all of last year on Detroit's practice squad. The 2013 sixth-round pick hasn't set the world on fire, but after catching just one ball in September, he averaged three receptions a game in October and snared the game-winner in the comeback victory over New Orleans. Now, with Johnson expected back after the week off, Lions coaches have a better handle on how to get the most out of those around him.

4) Jets out of whack. Monday's press conference in Florham Park did nothing but exacerbate an already horrific situation. And it didn't take long for reaction from around the league on embattled Jets GM John Idzik to start flowing in. One rival executive texted, "If you're the owner, I wonder what your response would be? Very same day (Giants GM) Jerry Reese had his. Night-and-day difference." Another personnel man texted, "He's not the guy you want doing media. Bad hire. Rex (Ryan) deserves better -- just give the guy players. He's good enough to win." It's not hard to find fault, of course, in the job Idzik has done. But there's also a larger question to be asked here, and that one concerns the culpability of ownership. After hiring Mike Tannenbaum as GM and Eric Mangini as coach in 2006, Woody Johnson has chosen to go halfway on his two big overhauls: keeping Tannenbaum, but firing Mangini in 2009; then firing Tannenbaum, but keeping Ryan in 2013. It's certainly worth asking if the Jets have gone so sideways in the process that it's now time to bring in a singular football czar to make the hires and set some sort organizational tone, which so clearly has been lacking.

Three checkdowns

1) We're focused on Brady/Manning, but Manning/Revis might be just as interesting. Not counting a regular-season matchup late in 2009 when Peyton only played a half, the Broncos QB and Patriots CB have faced off twice: in the 2009 and '10 playoffs. Both times, Reggie Wayne was shut down (3 rec., 55 yds. in '09; 1 rec., 1 yd. in '10). And both times, Pierre Garcon went off opposite him. The lesson? Maybe Demaryius Thomas is taken out, and Emmanuel Sanders becomes the guy to watch on Sunday.

2) Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden said to me back in August that his biggest issue with Robert Griffin III is that he tries to score on every play. He wanted his QB to pick his spots and play distributor more often. No one's calling for Colt McCoy to stick as starter, but there's some good tape to look at in that regard from Monday -- the Texas Ex hit eight receivers, five multiple times.

3) If they gave an award for best position coach each year, you'd have to think Miami's John Benton would be the lead horse right now. The Dolphins offensive line coach started the season with five new starters. And even after getting Mike Pouncey back, they're working with four new guys. Yet, Miami is middle of the pack in sack percentage, and third in yards per rush.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) West Virginia WR Kevin White (vs. TCU, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2): The 6-foot-3, 210-pound dynamo has generated a ton of buzz in the scouting community, making a major leap in his second year after transferring from Lackawanna College, with 72 catches, 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns in just eight games. "For sure," one AFC college scouting director said, when asked if he'd heard the chatter. "He's big, physical, a good athlete with strong hands. And he's produced against everyone he's faced. ... It's a big stage for him playing against TCU, but he won't be challenged by his corners much." The defense-deficient Big 12 generally does him a disservice in that regard, but he's got more eyeballs on him now and how he handles that will be scrutinized. If he proves to navigate what's ahead well, he may well be ticketed for the first round.

2) Auburn WR D'haquille Williams (at Ole Miss, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): Transferring from junior college earlier in the year, Williams has emerged as the most dangerous outside threat in the Tigers' run-heavy offense, with 34 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns in seven games. The problems are related to his newness to major college football: He's raw as a prospect and carries significant maturity questions. The NFL teams simply don't have nearly the information they need on him yet. As one AFC area scout said, "There are a lot more questions than answers with him." At 6-2 and 216 pounds, Williams has size. And while he's not a freakish athlete, he moves plenty well enough. "He's more a talent (with a chance to be very good) than a polished product right now," one NFC GM texted. "It's in his hands now, because I'm sure plenty of people there are working to develop him. He has improved. ... Time will tell. He needs more practices and more games."

Extra point

The 2014 draft class had a strong reputation going into the May selection process -- and the group has lived up to anyone's expectations. Some of those rookies believe the reason they're so ready to contribute right away is because of strides made in the college game.

"A lot of people ask me the question, 'How different is it from college? What's the biggest difference? It must be so crazy,' " said Redskins second-round pick Trent Murphy, now a starting linebacker with Brian Orakpo on the shelf. "I'm like, 'It's really not.' I'm wearing a different-colored jersey, there are different faces, but it's similar, to me. The competition, obviously everyone is unbelievably good, but that's the biggest difference."

Murphy was the beneficiary of playing for a staff loaded with pro pedigrees at Stanford. But it goes beyond that, and into the way these programs are now set up. Because of the 20-hour rule, college coaches have to trust that their athletes will do a lot of the necessary work on their own. And since the time is so limited, those coaches are doing more to provide the players with resources.

All of that is one reason why college coaches have done well transitioning to the pros under the new rules: They're used to working around the work limitations. So, too, are their players.

"They prepared us so well, especially as far as taking care of your body, being proactive, doing preventive work, coming in the weight room extra, warming up, stretching after practice," Murphy said. "That was so important for me because, especially at this level, no one's gonna be babysitting for you. They're gonna tell you what's expected, and expect you to show up and do your job. You have to know what works for you, how to care of yourself, how to seek help and what kind of help you need."

So how good have the rookies been? Let's check out the top 10 picks:

1) Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans (2 games, 1 start): Clowney's been largely quiet, thanks to his balky knee.

2) Greg Robinson, OT, St. Louis Rams (7 games, 3 starts): A bit of a slow starter, Robinson broke into the lineup at guard in Week 6. Now, with Jake Long down, he'll do the job he was drafted for: play left tackle.

3) Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars (6 games, 5 starts): His play hasn't been altogether terrible. But his turnover problem is. Bortles has come along, but 12 picks to six touchdown passes is impossible to ignore.

4) Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills (8 games, 8 starts): The wisdom in the Bills sending what they did to Cleveland to get Watkins is debatable. His talent is not. Eight games in, he has 38 catches, 590 yards and five touchdowns.

5) Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders (7 games, 7 starts): Not a lot to argue with, except maybe the lack of sack production (and a team win). Mack's turned heads on tape, and has 43 tackles and a pass defensed through Oakland's 0-7 start.

6) Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons (7 games, 7 starts): Matthews hurt his ankle in the season opener, sat in Week 2, and the problem has lingered, with struggles against Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul in recent weeks raising questions about his health.

7) Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6 games, 6 starts): The big Texas A&M product lacked an expansive football background and was labeled raw coming out, yet he's caught at least four balls in each of his first six games as a pro.

8) Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns (7 games, 2 starts): Like Robinson, Gilbert has had to fight for snaps, and he struggled big-time in September. More recently, he's become more comfortable and now is playing more instinctively.

9) Anthony Barr, OLB, Minnesota Vikings (8 games, 8 starts): He won NFC Defensive Player of the Week the other day, and he's been Mr. Everything in Mike Zimmer's defense all year, notching 54 tackles, three sacks, three passes defensed, a forced fumble and a game-winning touchdown. A real contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

10) Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit Lions (6 games, 1 start): He's been banged up, but has flashed the unique physical ability he brings to the table with 10 catches for 103 yards, and a big touchdown in the win over the Jets.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop