Steelers' offense primed for playoff run pending Big Ben's health

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger hobbled up to the dais Sunday afternoon, a bulky walking boot changing the tenor of a day that had seemed to encapsulate the vision the Pittsburgh Steelers have for their offense and their playoff potential.

Roethlisberger said he was hurt on the Steelers' final offensive play of their 30-12 wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins before the kneeldown that ended the game, when Cameron Wake fell on his right ankle on a third-down pass attempt. That Roethlisberger was still in the game at that point -- with 4:34 remaining in a game that the Steelers were leading by 18 points -- will be fodder for questioning Mike Tomlin if Roethlisberger's play is compromised next Sunday in Kansas City for the Divisional Round. That Roethlisberger had a reputation early in his career of injury-related drama will probably encourage a week of wondering if this is anything more than a routine sputter for an otherwise high-performance offense. Still, on a day when everything was working the way offensive coordinator Todd Haley has long imagined it, an injury to Roethlisberger, however minor it might turn out to be, provided sobering ballast to the soaring expectations that the Steelers could be primed for a run through the AFC field.

"We don't know anything yet, but we'll find out soon enough," Roethlisberger said. "You're always worried about being hurt, but I'll be out there next week."

For good measure, Roethlisberger said his right shoulder was fine, too, after he was spotted flexing his arm late in the game. Although head coach Mike Tomlin, without getting into specifics, described the team's injuries as "nothing of extreme significance." It was a long way from a summer morning at the Steelers' training camp at St. Vincent College a few years ago, when Haley sat on a bench and said he thought his offense could score 30 points per game. That kind of offense hasn't been spotted in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, mostly because the roster was never intact, addled by injuries to so many of the critical principles.

This was the first time running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown were healthy and available for the playoffs together. In fact, the Steelers had been able to rest them and Roethlisberger in last week's regular-season finale -- and the impact was immediate against the overmatched Dolphins. The Steelers opened with a passing attack that took advantage of the Dolphins' injury-decimated secondary, as Brown took short passes for long runs and touchdowns on the two opening drives. That forced the defense back, and the Steelers followed with a 1970s flashback drive of 10 plays, 10 runs and a touchdown. It was a brutal show of force, with the Steelers' offensive line shoving the Dolphins' defensive line, including defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, backward as if they were riding skateboards, to give Bell the time to read his blocks -- so patient that his coaches were telling him to hurry up -- and burst through the massive holes.

"I'm just watching them, and the safeties are deep the whole time," Bell said. "I'm just thinking Brown is going to scare them. I'm looking at the sideline telling them just keep coming. I don't feel fatigued."

By early in the second quarter, the Steelers were already leading by 17 points, Brown had more than 100 yards receiving (he finished with 124 on five receptions) and Bell was on his way to the Steelers' postseason single-game rushing record (167 yards and two touchdowns). Roethlisberger thought the offense lacked detail in the second half, but a Chiefs team that was overwhelmed by the Steelers43-14 early in the season had to notice that the Steelers can now confidently expect to win any way they have to. That includes with a powerful defense that punishes quarterbacks the way the Steelers did Matt Moore, who was pummeled with five sacks, a hit to the jaw that sent him to the sideline for a concussion evaluation, two fumbles and an interception.

"We can always get better, but we was cooking today," Stephon Tuitt said.

They were at a boil, actually, so dominant from start to finish that the Terrible Towels could be used for warmth instead of twirling. In the last few years, the identity of the Steelers had morphed indisputably from the grinding offensive style that won the franchise's first five Super Bowls to the pass-first model that won the sixth. But what makes them so dangerous now, and perhaps the greatest threat to the Patriots' conference supremacy, is a balanced attack that allowed Roethlisberger to decipher the defense with a run-pass option at the line of scrimmage, as he did Sunday. Roethlisberger said teams have lately wanted to "bleed slow," to give the Steelers the run, rather than surrender the big pass play. The problem is that there is no stopping the bleeding once it starts. The Steelers have scored at least 24 points in their last nine straight games, all but one a victory. And it has come to this: Bell was asked if this is a run-first offense again.

"We come into a game plan with a different mindset each and every game," Bell said. "This game, we opened them up with the pass early. We ran quick passes. Antonio Brown took two long ones. That's what really got them backed up a little bit. We're a team that's really balanced. We can spread guys out, throw the ball all over the place, line up big, run the ball out of shotgun or run or pass out of four wide. We can attack in different ways."

They can, and it makes them a dangerous opponent to the second-seeded Kansas City Chiefs and perhaps beyond. But only if the greatest threat to the Steelers -- their own health -- is not a factor. As Steelers fans fled the cold, Roethlisberger was driven to his car in a golf cart, the better to protect his right leg. We'll know more about his health in the coming days. And then we'll know everything about how far the Steelers can go.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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