The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has been something of a tease the last few seasons. At different points since the start of the 2015 season, the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have combined to form one of the most dangerous offenses on the NFL stage. Ancillary actors like Martavis Bryant, Ladarius Green and now JuJu Smith-Schuster have shuffled in and out to play roles in the passing game.
Nevertheless, we always left the show feeling as if we didn't quite get our money's worth. Whether it be injuries, suspensions or slumps, we've rarely been able to see the Pittsburgh offense together all at once.
The 2017 season felt like it was going to be different. Roethlisberger didn't follow through on hints at retirement. Bell was healthy coming into the season. Bryant was reinstated from a season-long 2016 suspension. Brown, well, we've never had to worry about him as the mainstay of this group.
Yet, despite the presence of their full cast as the show kicked off in Week 1, this year's Steelers offense has underdelivered on the promise one would expect with two top-of-their-position type talents in Brown and Bell playing alongside a future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Steelers ranked outside the top-10 in yards per play, plays run and overall points scored coming into Week 11. Simply put, this team looked like the Pittsburgh teams of old. A team that won games on the back of a reborn stout defense and by the charging efforts of the ground game. It wasn't as if Pittsburgh was suffering, and the offense even has a breakout rookie in Smith-Schuster, but it just wasn't quite what we expected.
Roethlisberger's struggles this season are no secret. At many points in 2017, Roethlisberger looked in steep decline. The Pro Bowl quarterback was particularly woeful when throwing into tight windows (less than a yard of separation) this season. In Weeks 1-10, Roethlisberger had a 38.3 passer rating when throwing into tight windows, ranking 27th among quarterbacks with 100-plus pass attempts. The player we watched on Thursday night looked more like the once dominant passer we're used to seeing, consistently nailing difficult throws.
Ben Roethlisberger Week 11 tight window passes
20 percent of his attempts
44.4 percent completion rate
64 yards and one touchdown
105.8 Passer Rating
This performance had to be refreshing to see for Pittsburgh. In an AFC playoff picture littered with questions and pretenders, the Steelers have the roster to go the distance. They could ill-afford to carry any questions about their quarterback much longer.
Give long-time former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau credit; he seemed to have some plan in place to at least slow down Brown. The Titans cornerbacks lined up in press coverage (less than three yards of cushion at the snap) against Brown on 56.8 percent of his pass plays. It was clear the team intended to jam Brown at the line to disrupt his routes in time to create pressure on Roethlisberger. It is not uncommon for teams to take this approach. Brown receives the lowest cushion at the line (4.22) in the NFL among receivers with at least 40 targets. The Titans just found out what can happen when you lose that battle to the best wideout in the game.
Brown ripped through the Titans secondary for big plays throughout the night. He stung rookie corner for six of his catches for 80 yards and a touchdown on nine targets. You can scheme however you want, but Brown is a chore to cover for a player with Jackson's experience-level.
What earned Brown a spot on the highlight reel and a chance to compete for catch of the year was his work in tight coverage. Brown caught both of his targets where he had less than a yard of separation for 53 yards, scored a touchdown and checked in with a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
It was an outlier night for Brown and Roethlisberger connecting in tight windows, as their chemistry hasn't been there this year amid the quarterback's struggles. Roethlisberger had chucked three interceptions when targeting Brown in tight coverage and had a passer rating of 25.8, fourth-lowest among wide receivers with at least 15 targets through Week 10.
The elite receivers make plays even when they aren't completely open. Few make those catches with the regularity and flare of Brown when his quarterback is hot. The football world was treated to both on Thursday night.
As the Steelers march into the closing chapters of the regular season, they have to hope what they saw out of their offense Thursday night was the start of a new act for the unit on the 2017 stage, not a mere flash in the pan. If Roethlisberger can join Brown and Bell in playing at full strength, they will be a formidable foe for anyone in the AFC to keep from playing for another Super Bowl title.