The Steelers are relying more on the passing game, even in wintry weather



The Steelers are trying to accomplish something highly unusual by overcoming long odds to do it.

Make the playoffs after starting 2-6? Oh, that, too, but they are going about it in an odd way. They are trying to pass their way into the postseason.

Never have the Steelers been more unbalanced on offense, where their passing game ranks eighth in the NFL and their ground game 30th, their lowest ranking since at least 30 teams comprised the NFL. Not only that, they have ranked as high as eighth passing only one other time this century (2002) when they also had a reputable ground game that ranked ninth.

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Air Roethlisberger has taken flight! Ben Roethlisberger, with 3,118 yards passing, is on pace to break his own team record of 4,328 yards. Antonio Brown, with 80 catches for 1,044 yards, is on pace to break both team records. Jerricho Cotchery has a career-high seven touchdown catches. Emmanuel Sanders already has a career-high 48 receptions.

Good, but not in Peyton Manning’s or Tom Brady’s league? Check again. Roethlisberger has completed 47 passes of 20 yards or more, which is tied for the most in the NFL with Manning and Philip Rivers. He also is one of five quarterbacks in the league with more than 3,000 yards passing.

This comes after a concerted effort from the top down to improve a ground game that was below Steelers par. Instead, the running game has gotten worse, and the Steelers are relying more and more on Roethlisberger’s right arm, even to the point where they have used the no-huddle offense more frequently the past two weeks.

“Any means necessary to win these days,” is how tackle offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum put it. “Sometimes, you are able to run the ball better, sometimes you’re able throw the ball better. With the rule changes and the way defensive backs have to play, the ball is able to come out and the routes are not disrupted as much so you have some holes in the secondary, especially if the offensive line holds up.”

Since the Steelers moved to Heinz Field in 2001, throwing the ball more often did not equal more success in past seasons; it usually meant the opposite.

In 2009, Roethlisberger set the team passing-yardage record, they finished ninth in the NFL in passing yards and missed the playoffs. In 2006, they finished ninth in the NFL in passing, 8-8 as a team. In 2003, they were 14th in passing, 31st in rushing and went 6-10.

They are trying to break that mold this season, partly out of necessity because their ground game has been terrible. They also have had a more mature passing game lately with Roethlisberger throwing no interceptions the past two games and getting sacked once during that time.

“The guys up front are doing a great job,” coordinator Todd Haley said, then alluded to earlier injuries in the line. “We’ve had some moving parts. There is some cohesion happening. You can see it happening across the board, starting with [center] Fernando Velasco and some of the identification things.

“At the same time, I think the guys running routes are getting open. They are getting into routes fast and making it happen. Ben is obviously getting the ball out on time and to the right spots most of the time. So, it’s usually a pretty good recipe.’’

The forward pass is a century old, and the Steelers are putting it to good use.

“Sometimes, you can control the game throwing the ball,” Beachum said. “It’s not the 1950s, 1960s when you line up in the I-formation with double tight ends, and a one-receiver set — or the single wing. You play to your strengths.”

One reason the Steelers wanted to run the ball better is that they always believed that playing outdoors in the North, you had to be able to run the ball in the cold weather to be successful.

That theory is about to be put to the test. It passed last Sunday on a bitterly cold, windy day in Cleveland when Roethlisberger completed 22 of 34 passes for 217 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating.

Similar conditions are forecast Thursday night in Baltimore, and three of the next four Steelers games are at Heinz Field with the fourth in Green Bay. December football might not look the same to Steelers fans.

They are not the only ones trying to do it in wintry conditions. Of the top 10 passing teams in the NFL, six are in cold-weather cities with outdoor stadiums. And, of the top 10 passing teams, six are either in or tied for first place in their divisions.

“You can do it,” tight end Heath Miller said of passing effectively in bad or cold weather. “You have to have a good quarterback, which we do, with a strong arm. You have to be efficient. Our guys have done a good job of giving Ben time in the pocket.

“If it’s a wet, messy field, sometimes that works in the offense’s favor more than the defense, because we know where we’re going. They have to react to what we do.”


Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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