Now that Ben Roethlisberger has returned, the Steelers will take on a new look and maybe even an improvement over the record-breaking offense he directed last season.
That offense Roethlisberger will lead onto the field Oct. 17 has already taken on a different appearance and philosophy since he last played in a real game Jan. 3 in Miami to close out the 2009 season.
The starting line has changed by 60 percent, he has new receivers, and they have found something they nearly abandoned in 2009, a running game. The Steelers are tied for seventh in the NFL with an average of 133.5 yards rushing per game. They ranked 19th last season with an average of 112.1 yards per game.
Roethlisberger's return should aid the one area in which the offense has lagged, passing.
"We definitely can open up our playbook and run a lot of different things," Hines Ward said. "I can't wait to see him on the field competing."
Without Roethlisberger, the passing game ranks next-to-last in the NFL with an average of 136 yards per game. Last season, they ranked ninth with a 259.2-yard average.
Even before they knew Roethlisberger would miss the first four games, the Steelers decided they must run the ball more effectively this season and they have worked on that since last spring. With their quarterback's return, they should be more productive through the air, and that can only help their ground game, too.
"It's going to be more balanced," said Mike Wallace, who has moved into the starting split end job vacated by Santonio Holmes. "I'm pretty sure we're going to stay close to our game plan because it got us to 3-1 and could be 4-0. But at the same time, we have a unique guy in there. This isn't just any guy returning, this is one of the top five guys in the league."
Roethlisberger obliterated Terry Bradshaw's 30-year-old passing record (3,724 yards in 1979) when he threw for 4,328 yards last season. However, the Steelers did not run well. They not only ranked 19th, they had trouble in short yardage and near the goal line.
Rashard Mendenhall, though, has rushed for 411 yards and a 4.6-yard average per carry even though defenses have aligned more to stop the run than the pass because of the absence of Roethlisberger. They more than likely will loosen up with Roethlisberger's presence in the pocket, and that could open things up more for Mendenhall.
"Yeah, I'm sure they're going to have to play things kind of differently," Mendenhall said. "With Ben coming back, it adds another dynamic to our offense."
Said Wallace: "I think it just opens up longer runs for him and more for our team as a whole. If Rashard can continue what he's been doing or even better, I think he can shoot up to one or two [in the league] with the defenses sitting back in coverage."
Steelers receivers, who flourished under Roethlisberger last season, are all off to slow starts. Wallace does have two touchdown receptions of 41 and 46 yards from Charlie Batch against Tampa Bay, but he has only caught nine passes. Heath Miller, who set the team's record for tight ends with 76 receptions in 2009, has just 10 or on a pace for 40. Ward, who led the Steelers with 95 receptions last season, leads them with 12 after four games, or on pace for half of what he caught in 2009.
That, though, should all change starting Oct. 17.
"He really understands the offense," Ward said. "He had a phenomenal camp. He was going down to his second and third reads. He looks good."
A primed Roethlisberger in the pocket should lift all boats on the offense.
"I know we're going to run the ball because it's effective and we have to," Wallace said. "But at the same time, hey, we have 7 back there. Our whole team is excited and I feel we can put up some points.
"We tried to keep them honest [by throwing deep through the first four games] but we weren't throwing too many passes, so it's kind of hard for us to keep them honest when they're not respecting our passing games. Now they're going to have to. I think our offense is going to explode."