Long before the Steelers strolled on to the Heinz Field lawn Saturday night to play the Kansas City Chiefs in their only exhibition game that means anything, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was warming up by throwing passes in the runway outside the locker room. A passerby on his way to the field tapped him on the shoulder and offered a word of advice. "Stay healthy out there, will ya?" Roethlisberger grinned. "That's the plan."
That made the night a success even though the Steelers lost, 26-20, in overtime to fall to 0-3 in the preseason.
There were major concerns coming in because Roethlisberger and the team's other quarterbacks were sacked nine times in the first two exhibition games. The offensive line was especially lame in the previous game against Washington. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert allowed two sacks. Left tackle Mike Adams was called for two penalties. Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro also drew flags. The Steelers offense -- any offense, really -- will go only as far as its line takes it. The Steelers went nowhere in a 24-13 loss to the Redskins, converting just 1 of 13 third-down plays.
You bet all eyes were on the big fellas Saturday night, the most important exhibition game because the starters play at least a half, some into the third quarter.
The line was better against the Chiefs. Not perfect. Not even close. But better.
Roethlisberger had predicted as much before the game. "My faith is at an all-time high," he said of his line. You have to understand something about the franchise quarterback. He's very smart. No one is more supportive of the guys who have to keep him healthy even when they are struggling.
Roethlisberger also predicted the Steelers passing game would be better because more attention would be paid to it after the run game was the focus in the first two exhibitions. He was right again. He completed 13 of 19 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and a 113.0 passer rating before calling it a night at halftime. His numbers would have been significantly better if wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders hadn't juggled what should have been a 34-yard touchdown pass along the sideline and a chop-block penalty on running back Jonathan Dwyer hadn't wiped out a 25-yard pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown.
"We're a juggling catch away from it being a very productive [first] half offensively," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told KDKA-TV at halftime.
Roethlisberger was sacked twice, the first when linebacker Derrick Johnson came free up the middle. The second sack, late in the half, couldn't be blamed on the line. The Chiefs blitzed safeties Tysyn Hartman and Eric Berry from Roethlisberger's right side, leaving Dwyer to choose which to block. He picked Berry, but Hartman got to Roethlisberger.
The Steelers linemen also weren't penalized in the first half. Unfortunately for them, they weren't quite so clean in the third quarter. Pouncey was penalized for an illegal snap on the first series and for holding on the second series.
At least some of the credit for the improvement should go to master-of-all-trades Kelvin Beachum, a backup who has practiced at every line position this summer. We know now that includes tight end, where Beachum, somewhat surprisingly, started against the Chiefs, his first game action at the position since junior high school. Tight end is a position of need for the Steelers with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth injured and David Johnson trying to settle in after coming off the physically-unable-to-perform list last week. Beachum is a much better blocker than the next man up, David Paulson. Beachum played several snaps against the Chiefs and held his own. It's just too bad Roethlisberger didn't make things interesting by throwing him a pass.
"It was just a personnel package, not a permanent position for me," Beachum said. "We were just trying to get in the best position to run the ball.
"I thought I did pretty well. Wherever the coach puts me, I go. I understand this is a team game. Wherever the team needs me."
Despite all of the good things the Steelers did, there still are concerns up front. Chiefs Pro Bowl linebacker Tamba Hali blew by Adams on the second play of the game and put a decent lick on Roethlisberger as he threw. Any pain Roethlisberger felt was eased because his pass was completed to Brown for 49 yards. Hali beat Adams again later in the first quarter, forcing Roethlisberger to scramble. That play also had a happy ending with Roethlisberger somehow finding a wide-open Dwyer along the right sideline for a 13-yard touchdown just an instant before he ducked under a potentially big hit by linebacker Justin Houston.
It was the first touchdown of the exhibition season by the Steelers' first offense. It might be its last because the starters aren't expected to play much in the final exhibition game Thursday night at Carolina. Certainly, Roethlisberger won't play a lot, meaning the odds are outstanding that he will start the season healthy.
Make no mistake ...
Seeing Roethlisberger walk out of Heinz Field in one piece was the best part of this gorgeous Saturday night on the North Shore.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published August 25, 2013 4:15 AM