On the Steelers: Case of mistaken identity? Not for new-look offense
October 28, 2011 4:00 AM
Rashard Mendenhall has just 351 yards rushing this season.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This Steelers team is unlike any the New England Patriots have played before, not even like the one they toyed with in November at Heinz Field, and certainly not like the ones they used as steppingstones to a couple Super Bowls in the first half of the previous decade.
People keep asking coach Mike Tomlin and his players what their identity is on offense, and, after seven games, it's pretty clear that they have become a team that will use its best talent. Its best talent is the guy who throws the football and those who catch it.
At age 29, Ben Roethlisberger is in his prime, and he's on a roll. He's second in the AFC with 1,937 passing yards, on pace to shatter his own team record. Mike Wallace is back averaging more than 20 yards a catch, and his 730 yards rank third in the league. He is on pace to shatter the team's receiving record.
They also are getting more production from their second-year receivers, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and tight end Heath Miller is starting to play a bigger role.
Game: Steelers (5-2) vs. New England Patriots (5-1), Heinz Field.
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday
What better opportunity -- or is it necessity -- for the Steelers to lean on their passing game and, perhaps, crank it up more than this Sunday when they play the Patriots?
"Exactly, that's what we're out to prove," said Sanders, who could play a larger role Sunday if Hines Ward's ankle does not respond before then.
"I feel like we can score with any team in the league," Wallace said. "We just have to be on top of our game."
Long gone is any myth that the Steelers have a good running game. They rank in the middle of the pack, No. 14. Rashard Mendenhall, the halfback coordinator Bruce Arians said everything revolves around in the offense, has only 351 yards and is on pace to have his least productive season since his rookie year in 2008.
The Steelers have run the ball just 42.5 percent of the time. That's their second-lowest percentage in at least the past 20 seasons. The only time they ran it less often over an entire season came in 2009, when they did so 42.2 percent, which prompted team president Art Rooney II to urge them to run it better.
Many times over the past decade they have run it more than 50 percent and even hit 61.1 in '04. Those days are gone.
"I think Bruce Arians is doing a great job of understanding the talent that he has," Sanders said. "He's putting in practices, he's putting in plays that go toward our strengths as receivers. Mike is a burner, A.B. is a playmaker, I'm a playmaker. He's putting in plays that are paying off."
They may need those plays and more Sunday.
Ward has a sprained ankle and may not play Sunday.
He left the game against New England in November in the first quarter with a concussion, and the Steelers were not able to fill the void, using an ineffective Antwaan Randle El.
They believe they are much better prepared to replace him this season.
Sanders and veteran Jerricho Cotchery, signed during training camp, would replace Ward, depending on which offensive packages they run.
Sanders and Brown were rookies last season, and the year's experience has helped to turn both into more accomplished receivers.
"If he's not there, we've got guys who are more than capable," Arians said.
"I think this year everybody is better prepared because we're older and we played more plays than last year," said Wallace, in his third season.
"We're more comfortable, we're smarter players."
Ike Taylor said he fears no receiver and that cornerbacks, in general, do not.
"Don't nobody scare nobody," Taylor said. "If you're scared, you shouldn't be playing."
But, if you're looking for someone who might fit that description, "Mike Wallace is that guy," Taylor explained. "He just got speed you can't even coach.
"He don't even run properly, so that's scary. When a guy's running past people and don't have no technique on running, don't know how to run, really, that's scary.
"He runs like he's on the playground, like he was a little kid. His form isn't right, arms out wide, but every time you see him he's running past people."
Wallace said it doesn't matter, the way it didn't matter if Carl Yastrzemski had a peculiar batting stance.
"I do run right," Wallace said in response to Taylor. "I run right by people."
Wallace had a high school track coach that tried to change his running style.
"But it never worked. When I'm running, it feels right to me; it may not look right.
"When I do it different, it kind of feels funny."
The only change on the Steelers injury front was that linebacker Jason Worilds (quad) was limited in practice Thursday as was linebacker James Farrior (calf). Worilds did not practice Wednesday, and Farrior has been limited the past two days.