Passing game takes bigger steps forward for Steelers

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Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joked after the second preseason game against the Washington Redskins that he was saving his touchdowns for the regular season. The proclamation came after the first-team offense failed to score a touchdown for the second game in a row.

Well, the Steelers first-team offense didn't exactly light up the scoreboard Saturday night at Heinz Field in a 26-20 overtime defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs. But Roethlisberger made sure to put some snap back in the attack by throwing deep, getting Antonio Brown involved and, yes, finally producing a touchdown.

"The first two games we tried to set the tone by running the ball," wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. "The game plan was to come in and be more balanced, having a balanced attack."

Indeed, the Steelers game-planned for the first time in the preseason and it was apparent what they wanted to do -- test their passing game, often by going deep against the Chiefs' man coverage.

And it showed. Roethlisberger completed 13 of 19 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Bruce Gradkowski played the entire second half and passed for 115 yards and a touchdown.

"This week was the week we were able to take it a little bit more and make some plays," said receiver Jericho Cotchery, who had two catches for 32 yards. "We've been working hard in practice, just like we've been working pretty hard on the running game, and we brought it to the game this week."

OK, the first touchdown came on a busted play in which Roethlisberger did what he does best -- elude the pressure of linebacker Tamba Hali and throw a 13-yard pass to running back Jonathan Dwyer, who was wide open in the right flat.

But there were a number of other highlights to at least satisfy Roethlisberger and his receiving mates, including a 49-yard pass to Brown, their top receiver, on their second play of the game.

Even the head coach was satisfied..

"We're a juggling catch away from it being a very productive half offensively," coach Mike Tomlin said.

The reference was to a catch that Sanders appeared to make for a 34-yard touchdown down the right sideline, a play that would have given the Steelers a 17-3 lead. But Sanders bobbled the ball as he was falling to the turf near the pylon and didn't have full possession until he rolled out of bounds.

"I'm extremely satisfied," Sanders said, referring to the offense. "I just wish I could have topped it off."

Still, Tomlin saw enough from his first-team offense to convince him that sitting Roethlisberger and a couple of other key offensive performers for the preseason finale Thursday night in Carolina is a good idea.

"I like the direction this offense is going, even though we're 0-3," said Sanders, who had only one catch for 24 yards. "I'm extremely optimistic we're going to be very good."

It had been a mostly quiet preseason for Brown, who takes over as the No. 1 receiver with the departure of Mike Wallace. Brown had just three catches for 35 yards in the first two games, but he more than matched that production in the first half when he caught three passes for 61 yards.

The big one was a 49-yarder down the left side that set up Shaun Suisham's first field goal.

"We did some things, developed some things, and got better," Brown said. "I think we did some great things. We definitely got better in that regard."

Even Gradkowski provided some aerial punch, throwing a perfect pass to rookie receiver Markus Wheaton for a 34-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

That throw atoned for the misfire on a deep pass to Sanders on the previous series when Gradkowski failed to lead Sanders, who was running a post, to the middle of the field. Nonetheless, the deep passes were a part of a game plan to open up the offense and attack downfield -- something that had been missing in the previous two games.

"We have a lot of talent on this offense," Gradkowski said. "It was another stepping-stone toward the regular season."


Gerry Dulac: or Twitter @gerrydulac.


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