Collier: Offense hits some notes, misses more in debut

Haley's offense looked productive early but dropped off the charts late in game

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DENVER -- It wasn't an omen, necessarily, because it was too close to an impending disaster just by its own immediacy.

This was on Interstate 70 about 24 hours before Big Ben vs. Big Peyton. Guy in a pick-up truck trying to win AFC multi-tasker of the week. He was strumming a guitar equipped with a harmonic holder. So he also was playing the harmonica.

And he was the driver.

But this isn't about suicidal/homicidal tendencies or even about clear violations of the Colorado motor vehicle code. In fact, it probably wouldn't have been worth mentioning at all if the manic movements of the pick-up cowboy didn't remind me so much of the Todd Haley offense.

In its debut performance, the Steelers offense as driven by their new offensive coordinator seemed to have the same sort of mania -- wildly successful in elongated bursts, then suddenly nonsensical in others, with a clear potential to be fairly entertaining once any kind of identifiable philosophy calcifies around it.

It first appeared intensely run-centric.

Ben Roethlisberger threw two passes in the first quarter.

Then it appears intensely kick-centric.

Two punts and a field goal preceded the season's first touchdown, a 4-yard flip to Heath Miller, whom Haley and Roethlisberger seemed to forget even existed in the preseason.

But as the offense came toward some personality, it emerged to dominate the clock for most of the second and third quarters. At one point early in the fourth, the Steelers had run 44 plays in the time Denver had run three. Unfortunately, Peyton Manning compensated for his limited opportunities by remembering that a good play against the Steelers is getting Demaryius Thomas in space to the left of the formation.

So on what seemed like a harmless second-and-1 play from the 29 with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Manning sent Thomas wide left, hit him with a clothesline of a flat pass, and watched Thomas do the very kind of thing he did almost exactly eight months ago, the very thing that eliminated Mike Tomlin's team from the playoffs at its earliest convenience.

Thomas found a lane just as safety Troy Polamalu was getting screened to the inside, and took off on a 71-yard touchdown past a helpless Ryan Mundy.

That came exactly two plays after the Steelers used a whopping 16 plays to move 64 yards to a go-ahead field goal.

Roethlisberger overcame that Denver lead with another manic, all-over-the-place-with-the-football 15-play drive that included another strike to Miller for 23 yards that excavated the Steelers out of a third-and-18 predicament.

Roethlisberger managed both drives in spite of a deteriorating situation all along the offensive line. The entire right side of it -- Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster, left the game with injuries early, leaving the entire left side to handle most of the false-start penalties. Willie Colon chipped in with two, Max Starks a third, and wideout Antonio Brown a fourth. Michael Adams, the rookie who filled in for Gilbert, cost them an illegal formation penalty as well for lining up like a slot receiver in one instance.

Basically then, the offense looked like it could overcome absolutely anything right up until the moments when it absolutely had to.

Terrible towel wavers in the big mile-high crowd will come away from this opener remembering how hopeless the Steelers looked on their final three possessions. They'll remember Roethlisberger throwing incomplete to Miller after ignoring Mike Wallace breaking free deep in the first seam of Denver's defense. Maybe he didn't recognize No. 17 because he was gone all summer.

The offense had one more chance, trailing, 24-19, with the game clock wearing out. Brown tried to jump-start it with a 19-yard catch on first down, but Roethlisberger's next pass fell incomplete for Emmanuel Sanders, and the pass after that wound up in the wrong end zone.

Sanders ran a long out left, but Roethlisberger's throw didn't have enough on it to avoid the fast-closing Tracy Porter, who picked it at the 43 and sixed it in the next fateful moments. That probably wasn't Roethlisberger's worst throw of the game. Hours earlier, he had Miller alone in the back of the end zone and threw it straight into Porter, who did him the favor of dropping it.

The Steelers did not intercept Manning, and NFL history will tell you it's very hard to beat Manning when you don't. In games in which he is not intercepted, Manning is 80-12.

"For us to come back against them is something we can really build on," said Manning, whose Denver debut went 19 for 26 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. "When we need it we'll be able to say, 'Remember when we had to go 80 yards and we did it against a great defense?' "

What Manning ran Sunday night looked just about exactly like the Indianapolis offense. What Roethlisberger was running is still anybody's guess.

When the new offense had to be effective, late in the opener, it was a bit of a horror show: strumming that six string, straining at the harmonica, trying not to get anybody killed.

Steelers - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com; @genecollier on Twitter.


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