This question rarely appeared around these parts in years, maybe decades: Must the Steelers offense carry the defense this season?
Their 2013 defense resembled little of what the Steelers grew accustomed to seeing through the years, yielding more than 5,000 yards for the first time in more than two decades.
It remains a defense in transition from the head-thumpers who dominated for nearly a decade to the youth of today. On the other hand, the Steelers offense already experienced such a transition, and might be a little cocky entering the 2014 season.
“I think the way we played down the stretch, I think more than anything, the group as a whole, the guys who were here have a different level of confidence that we can go out and compete against good defenses.” Todd Haley, the offensive coordinator, said Monday. “The name of the game is to score more points against the other team. But the more you score, the better.
“I just think there’s a little different level of confidence going into this year as opposed to maybe say Week 1-2-3-4-5 of last year.”
Ben Roethlisberger remains among the NFL’s best quarterbacks. As long as that little hamstring “tightness” does not linger, Le’Veon Bell is their most complete running back in years, and he has a complementary backfield. Heath Miller and Maurkice Pouncey are healthy, and the line could be their best in years.
Haley might want to knock on wood if he says it, but his offense is poised to break out in a big way this year.
“I’m excited about everything, really,” Haley said. “I’m always excited to get to Latrobe, it’s a special place, and, on top of that, when you have some of the variables you have it makes it more exciting.”
Among his reasons:
“I’m excited about Ben’s attitude, I’m excited about the leadership role he’s playing. I think he’s taking these new faces around him, these young guys around him, as a challenge. He’s a highly competitive guy who wants to do bigger and better things.
“He looks as good as he’s looked since I’ve been here. This is only my third year with him, but just his overall physical conditioning, and, mentally, he’s sharp and ready to go, and the arm goes right along with it. I haven’t seen any limitations with his arm any of the years. He can throw with anybody.”
• The offensive line and its new coach, Mike Munchak.
“I can’t say enough about Coach Munchak. He’s a huge addition for us, our staff and for our team.”
The interior line of Pouncey, Ramon Foster and David DeCastro is the best in years. The concern might be the tackles, but Haley does not share any concern.
“I think the way last year ended, I have a great level of confidence in Kelvin Beachum, that he’s no longer the guy you’re saying, ‘He’s a good utility guy.’ He came in and did it against really good competition and gave Ben a great peace of mind when he was back there. He’s working hard to be even better.”
He said Marcus Gilbert’s play stabilized last season at right tackle and again mentioned that Munchak should make the line a better one.
“ …The continuity among us, and the very similar vision that he and I have of how you play winning football, is exciting to me. I think the linemen have a great opportunity to see how good they can be.”
• The running game with Bell leading the way.
“I think we just touched the surface with him last year,” said Haley, citing Bell’s early injuries that kept him out most of the preseason and in the first three regular-season games.
“The guy is a multi-talented player. He’s a very good runner, he has very good hands. He is a good route-runner that Ben got comfortable with as time went on. All of those lead you to believe that there is more to come.”
• The wide receivers.
The Steelers lost two of their top three wide receivers, and concern remains about how quickly the young players and newcomer Lance Moore can develop or assimilate into the offense. Haley sounds more optimistic.
“I think there’s concern because it’s new bodies you are counting on, a lot of new faces around Ben. But some of the things Ben did in the offseason, taking those guys with him to work for a week, the extra time he put in, even in minicamps, what he’s doing now, meeting with them all a little extra, that is going to accelerate the process.
“I know there was a lot of hullabaloo when I said they were the deepest [I’ve ever had]. I didn’t say the best, I said the deepest. It’s a deep group that’s going to create great competition among itself, and I think enough guys will come out of that mix to help and contribute and know Antonio Brown is the bell cow of that group, and he’s looking to get better.”
• The no-huddle.
Yes, Haley does plan to go with the no-huddle earlier and more often. Early season injuries threw those plans off last season.
“This year, I don’t see the same issue. We have depth, we have a lot of guys who have practiced, worked it, put in a lot of time in the minicamps, and now you’ll see it a lot of time out here.”
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.