Reporters' Notebook

Steelers' offense clicking; Alex Smith's targets heating up

With Week 16 of the NFL season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

» Why Justin Forsett fits so well in Denver.

» Alex Smith's good feeling about the Chiefs' pass catchers.

» Marcel Reece's second chance in Seattle.

But first, the secret to the Steelers' dizzyingly versatile offense ...

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The snow swirled in big, fat flakes, the ground was hard and everything about that Week 14 morning in Buffalo screamed: run.

The Pittsburgh Steelers came out with an empty backfield. And proceeded to throw on seven of their first eight plays.

The idea was to take the Bills' front out of its game-opening, smashmouth, stuff-the-run mode, and to confuse and quiet a crowd looking for blood. And it worked. Because this Steelers offense can do more, in more different ways, than maybe any other offense in the NFL.

As the Ravens come into Pittsburgh for a Christmas Day showdown that needs no superlatives, this is where the fun lies: Can a tough, tough Ravens defense that knows Pittsburgh better than any other unit in the NFL stymie a Steelers offense that finally is healthy and firing and in its rhythm? Its totally varied, somewhat unpredictable rhythm. Like the offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, who wears a knit cap and shorts at practice, no matter the temperature. ("He does it to show us to be tough," said SteelersPro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown. "He doesn't really need to do it anymore.")

The Steelers, of course, have myriad personnel groupings and formations and a play list a mile long. But what they are better at than anyone is mixing up their tempo. The Steelers literally play at four different speeds: huddle, no-huddle, an abbreviated two-huddle (where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gives one set of instructions to his line and then another to his skill players) and something receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey termed muddle-huddle (where the Steelers run to the line quickly and then wait, baiting the defense into wondering: "Are they going to snap? Are they not?").

And it's not unusual for the Steelers to toggle amongst tempos in any single drive. Watch, and it's apparent. The Steelers will run a play for a 6- or 7-yard gain, and then all of a sudden, they're at the line, throwing the ball deep -- with little to no communication. Haley says that is only possible because of the five years he's had in Pittsburgh, the continuity in terminology and the experience his stars have had in this offense. But Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said that diminishes the time Haley has put into figuring out what works best and his willingness to consider anything for his playbook.

"He takes great input from others. He's a good listener. But more than anything, he doesn't subscribe to any conceived notion or any hardcore personality that might limit him," Tomlin said. "He has a basic general philosophy: We've got to move the ball because yards equal points."

That clearly is something Haley says with frequency; no less than three players used the exact same phraseology in describing their coordinator's central tenet. And they all said of Haley what Tomlin followed up with as well: "He doesn't care about what means we [use to] do it, and I agree with him."

The Steelers have won by throwing for 380 yards (against the Jetsin Week 5) and they've won by rushing for 240 yards (against the Billsin Week 14). They've won games where Roethlisberger has thrown five touchdown passes (against the Chiefsin Week 4) and ones where he's thrown none (against the Brownsin Week 11). When Heyward-Bey says, "We don't care how it gets done," it's one thing. But when Brown says it, too?

"Whatever it takes to win," Brown says. And then, with that sly smile that is his own, he adds, "But I am always open."

That right there illustrates two parts of the magic of Haley. First, the obvious: This offense is indeed exceptional at freeing space for players. Brown said Haley moves him around the field so much, has him line up in so many different ways, "so guys can't get a bead on me. Guys double me all the time, and he's still finding opportunities to get me the ball."

Granted, there is nothing revolutionary in trying to put the ball in the hands of one of your best game-breakers. But earlier this month, when the Giants and their uber receiving corps were in town as an unwitting contrast, the Steelers' ability to actually do just that was raised in relief. The Giants didn't throw Victor Cruz's way once, one week after rookie receiver Sterling Shepard was the forgotten man. In the first half, when Odell Beckham Jr. largely faced man coverage, the Giants targeted one of the game's brightest stars exactly once. Brown said that would never happen in this offense, that an opponent may try to take him out of a game, "but Coach Haley won't. He'll find something."

Like last week in Cincinnati, when Haley and the offense drew plays in the dirt.

"He literally said, 'OK guys, remember when we did this that one day in training camp?' " Heyward-Bey said. "It was a way to free Antonio, we talked about it on the sideline and boom, it turned into a 40-yard play."

And there's the second part: keeping everyone happy. As Brown said, in his mind, he can be a target every single snap. Running back Le'Veon Bell will never demand the ball, but there's a corner of this locker room that feels even more strongly about running the ball than Richard Sherman does. And, of course, there is Roethlisberger, whose initial response to a change in coordinators, understandably, was not a warm embrace. Steelers left guard Ramon Foster shook his head and said for as good as this locker room is, as singularly committed as he likes to believe this team now is, there is no underselling the part of coaching that is managing personalities.

"When Coach Haley came in here, he had a veteran quarterback who'd won two Super Bowls playing one way, he had an All-Pro center in Maurkice [Pouncey], he had a high-profile receiver in Mike Wallace -- he couldn't have an ego. And he didn't," Foster said. "He started by doing what those guys liked to do, he got their trust, and you see where we are now."

Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said the change in Roethlisberger is significant: "He used to be a backyard quarterback, just slinging it. Now he's a real NFL-style quarterback, reading defenses, trying to confuse you. We see him so much, and yet he's still one of the hardest to play because of it."

Because, as Haley said, "Ben's still one of the best in the world at extending plays when need be." He shies away from taking credit for any of what he acknowledges is an evolution, saying only that Roethlisberger, now 34, understood he couldn't keep playing as he did in his 20s on a full-time basis. Still, no change happens in a vacuum. Roethlisberger gets the ball out more quickly than he ever did, and yet, his downfield passing game is better. He is sacked less, he's earned three consecutive Pro Bowl nods (he had two in the eight years before working with Haley) and in Haley, he's found someone who will protect him while also being just as aggressive as he is. Haley caters to the part of Roethlisberger that's a gunslinger; Roethlisberger feeds off Haley's penchant for throwing deep (read: going for the jugular) on third-and-1.

And so, for his part, Roethlisberger is very complimentary of Haley these days. He publicly talks about enjoying working with him and feeling like he truly is part of a collaboration. And a few weeks ago, when it was posited that Haley's name deserves to be on head-coaching candidate lists, Roethlisberger sounded ready to write a letter of reference.

In some ways, this Steelers offense has flown a bit under the radar. Perhaps because as the Cowboys were marching to 11 straight wins, the Steelers were on a four-game slide. But Pittsburgh has now won five straight. If they can win the AFC North on Sunday, the Steelers will be a hot pick to get to Houston for Super Bowl LI, and the spotlight on what they can do and how they do it will only grow.

And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:

DENVER BRONCOS: Forsett, coaches keep finding each other. Things have come full circle in Denver with the recent acquisition of running back Justin Forsett. After being with the team for just over a week, Forsett got the start against the Patriotsin Week 15 over rookie Devontae Booker, for whom the team had high expectations, but who has struggled. Forsett told me the offensive scheme they're running in Denver is exactly what Broncos coach Gary Kubiak ran when Forsett played for Kubiak in Houston and again in Baltimore. With the Ravens in 2014, with Kubiak as his offensive coordinator, Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. The only addition Forsett said is some "Peyton [Manning] stuff" that was incorporated last year.

Quarterback coach Greg Knapp has also helped smooth Forsett's adjustment to the Broncos' system. Forsett told me it was Knapp who taught him how to run in a zone scheme, which is what Kubiak is famous for, during the 2009 season in Seattle, when Forsett was a second-year pro and Knapp was the Seahawks' offensive coordinator. It was also Knapp who put in a good word for Forsett with Kubiak, helping land Forsett in Houston in 2012, thus starting this connection between Forsett and Kubiak, who are now together again with their third organization.

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Pass catchers heating up.Alex Smith doesn't want to say it, but his group of pass catchers looks to be finding its stride at the perfect time to help him make a run at the Super Bowl.

Travis Kelce, who might be the best tight end in football right now, was selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl. Rookie Tyreek Hill has been one of the most dynamic playmakers in the league this season. His 10 total touchdowns puts him behind only Ezekiel Elliott among rookies; Hill is also heading to Orlando. And Smith is seeing positive signs for wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who missed four games with a groin injury and wasn't exactly himself when he returned two weeks ago.

"He came back the two weeks before, not wanting to do too much right way," Smith told me. "I think getting him back full speed was good to see. He had some good catches last week. Competitive catches, sideline catches. He's a guy that's obviously very important to our success."

Last week against the Titans, Maclin led the Chiefs with six catches and a season-high 82 receiving yards -- so, yes, he appears to be back. Kelce had his streak of four consecutive games with over 100 receiving yards snapped last week, but leads all tight ends with 73 receptions and has the second most yards among tight ends this season. And Hill has the third-highest passer rating in the NFL when targeted. Smith now has three viable options at his disposal heading into a potential playoff run.

"I don't want to compare to other years," Smith told me. "I think as far as having this many weapons this late in the game, different guys, being able to get them on the field and not let defenses totally zone in on one or two guys and try to take that away is nice. It's a good problem to have."

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Success breeds demand. A manager at the Raiders Image apparel shop at the team facility in Alameda, California, said that with the team securing its first playoff berth since 2002, sales of Raiders' merchandise is up 100 percent from this point last year.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Reece relishing his chance. Amid the postgame celebrations by players after Seattle clinched a playoff berth, recently signed fullback Marcel Reece stood at his locker alone, beaming.

"These guys just got me to the playoffs," said Reece, a three-time Pro Bowler.

Signed by Seattle on Dec. 6, Reece is in his ninth year (he spent two on Oakland's practice squad) in the NFL. But until now, he'd never tasted the postseason, having spent his entire career with the Raiders before being released this fall after serving a four-game suspension for using a banned performance-enhancing substance.

Reece, 31, has often spoken about how much he loved his time with the Raiders, where he was a favorite of team owner Mark Davis, but he said his brief time in Seattle has proven to be different.

"These guys never think they're out of it," Reece said. "Even when we were getting beat pretty good by Green Bay, everyone was on the sideline like, 'OK, don't worry. We got this.' "

The coincidence of it all: Reece's former team, the Raiders, have also clinched a playoff berth.

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