Ron Cook: Offense moving in right direction

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Relax, Ben Roethlisberger told us.

The Steelers' offense isn't that bad, isn't as off as it was in the preseason games against Green Bay and Washington.

Really, Roethlisberger insisted, his offense isn't far from being season-ready.

Wise man, Big Ben.

The Steelers beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-13, in exhibition football last night, but that's hardly important. What's significant is that the offense took strides in the right direction. No, it's not ready for Super Bowl XLII. Not even close. But you know what? They don't play that game until February. For late-August, the offense looked pretty good. It scored 13 points in the first half and would have had 20 if not for a fumble by running back Willie Parker at the Eagles' 1 late in the first quarter.

It's encouraging that Roethlisberger threw for 247 yards in his two quarters of work, hitting passes of at least 14 yards to seven different receivers. If he plays that well in the season opener in Cleveland Sept. 9, the Steelers should beat the Browns. If he eliminates the dumb interception he threw early in the game and doesn't miss open wide receiver Hines Ward twice, the Steelers could win big.

The interception last night was hideous, bringing back horrible memories of last season when Roethlisberger led the NFL by throwing 23 picks. On a first-and-10 play at the Eagles' 49, he threw up a duck as defensive tackle Mike Patterson was flinging him to the ground, handing a gift interception to defensive end Trent Cole.

Roethlisberger also threw badly and behind Ward twice, the first time nearly resulting in another interception, the second costing Ward a touchdown. But those poor passes seemed to be timing problems, more than anything. That's what the exhibition games are for. To work out the kinks.

"I told Hines, 'I'll get better.' I'll be sure to hit him the next time," Roethlisberger said.

"I can't say I'm happy about tonight because we left a lot of plays on the field. If you ask us, we'll tell you we left quite a bit out there. We were still a little off.

"But we're close enough that we can keep moving forward."

Roethlisberger's good plays easily trumped his bad ones. His best pass might have been a 22-yard dart to wide receiver Santonio Holmes on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter. Four times, he stepped up or out of the pocket to avoid pressure before hitting Ward for 13 yards, wide receiver Cedrick Wilson for 14, running back Najeh Davenport for 25 and Ward for 18. Three of those plays were on third down and sustained drives.

Roethlisberger even threw a 38-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller, who also had a 12-yard catch.

What a concept, throwing to the tight end.

"I give a lot of credit to my offensive line. They did a good job with protection," Roethlisberger said.

The line was definitely better, probably because there wasn't so much substituting. Kendall Simmons started at right guard and Willie Colon at right tackle and they played the first quarter. Right guard Chris Kemoeatu and right tackle Max Starks took over in the second quarter when the offense seemed to be more efficient. What that means in coach Mike Tomlin's final evaluation for starting jobs won't be known until after he sees the tape. But Kemoeatu stood out, at least on the block he threw to spring Davenport for a 33-yard gain on a screen pass.

Parker can thank the line for his 18-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He went in untouched. His nine other carries produced only 14 yards, but he did pick up 20 yards on a screen pass.

Parker's fumble after a big hit by linebacker Takeo Spikes was troubling. "That was the only real disappointing play we had all night," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. If there's one thing that will keep Parker from being a truly elite NFL back, it's his carelessness with the ball at times. That fumble in a regular-season game could have been costly. You have to score a touchdown when you get to the opponents' 1. The Steelers couldn't do it in their game at Oakland last season and that loss to a dreadful Raiders' team cost them making the playoffs.

"I think that fumble woke Willie up," Arians said. "He looked like the real Willie Parker after that."

Parker certainly looks ready enough for the season. There's no need for him to play in the final exhibition game at Carolina Thursday night. For that matter, Roethlisberger, Ward and the two key offensive linemen -- left tackle Marvel Smith and left guard Alan Faneca -- shouldn't have more than cameo appearances.

It has been a long preseason.

Based on last night -- not just with what the offense did, but with the first defense holding the Eagles to three first-half points -- it's starting to look as if it has been a productive one.

The important thing now is to finish it off injury-free.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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