Cook: Big Ben, Haley give-and-take works well for Steelers offense


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Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley agree on a lot of things these days, but this might be the most significant:

"It's a night-and-day difference," Haley said of his relationship with Roethlisberger, this year vs. last year.

"It's better ... It's definitely a lot better," Roethlisberger said.

Don't get the wrong idea. It wasn't terrible last season, the new marriage between the Steelers' long-time quarterback and their first-year offensive coordinator. There were no sideline blowups, as Haley often had with other quarterbacks. Until Roethlisberger was hurt in the ninth game, he was on pace for record numbers. He was mentioned as an NFL Most Valuable Player candidate.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't tension. Both Roethlisberger and Haley were hard-headed and stubborn at times. Roethlisberger made it clear he wasn't happy that Steelers management forced out offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, not just his coach but a close friend. Haley came in and wanted to prove his way was better. It has been speculated that offensive line coach Sean Kugler and wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery left the organization after the season because they couldn't work with Haley.

Pro football is a big business, no question. But it's also a terrific profession. For those connected to the Steelers offense last season, it often seemed like too much hard work when it should have been a lot more fun.

Not so much now.

"What's different this year is the ability and the willingness to be open to change -- from all of us," Roethlisberger said. "If [quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner] or I go to Todd and say, 'I think we should tweak this or change it,' he's open to changing it. The same thing when Todd comes to us or to me and says, 'Hey, Ben, let's do it like this.' I'm like, 'OK, great.' There's much more give and take. There's much more of a willingness to be open to ideas."

An example:

Roethlisberger said he went to his Wednesday meeting with the offensive coaches before the Baltimore game last Sunday and suggested that a shovel pass be put in the game plan. Fichtner told him the coaches already had put one in. Roethlisberger looked at his play sheet, shook his head and said, "Look, why don't we do it like this?" He later said, "We just tweaked it. We made it a little different. Made it to [tight end Heath Miller]. It was going to someone else."

The play went for a 3-yard touchdown, the Steelers' only touchdown in their 19-16 win against the Ravens.

"It's the willingness to hear things and to change them," Roethlisberger said. "Not just to say, 'OK, yeah, I hear you,' and not actually change it."

It's not just Haley, who has become more flexible. Roethlisberger has tried harder, too. "I've tried to be more of a leader," he said. Part of that is softening his stance toward Haley. Roethlisberger went out of his way to praise his play-calling after the win against the New York Jets Oct. 13, especially a play-action pass for a 55-yard touchdown to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The comments were jarring compared with Roethlisberger's public criticism of Haley's play-calling after a loss late last season to the Dallas Cowboys. He quickly apologized to Haley for those remarks and said they should have been kept behind closed doors.

"The quarterback-coordinator relationship is as important as any in football," Haley said. "There has to be trust there. If you expect it to happen overnight, you're expectations are too high. It's a process. It takes time."

Probably the best indication of improved relations between Haley and Roethlisberger is that they and the team didn't come apart after the Steelers lost their first four games. Discord and division are common when a team feels as if it is underachieving. But there was none -- at least publicly -- between Haley and Roethlisberger. The offense has gotten better each week. The passing game has been solid all along, although Sanders, Antonio Brown and Derek Moye all dropped touchdown passes. The running game was strong for the first time against the Ravens, rushing for 141 yards, 93 by rookie back Le'Veon Bell. Haley said the often-criticized offensive line played its best game. He also had nice words for Roethlisberger.

"Ben has showed true leadership by the way he's come to work. He worked his butt off and good things weren't happening for us as a team. I'm happy to see him finally get the results he deserves."

The Steelers have a chance to go to 3-4 with a win today in Oakland against the Raiders. Roethlisberger can add to what is becoming, at least for him, a really fine season. Haley can silence his critics for a third consecutive week.

Haley still has plenty of 'em, for sure.

Everyone thinks they can call the plays, right?

The good news for Haley and the Steelers is Roethlisberger isn't among those critics.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. 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.

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