Big plays will be back in due time for the Steelers, Haley says
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The big play was a signature of the Steelers the past several years under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. They did it as well as about anyone in the NFL.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and speedy receiver Mike Wallace developed a special chemistry. Wallace had a reception of 40 yards or more in six consecutive games last season, which was the longest streak in the league since 2000.
Antonio Brown, the receiver opposite Wallace, also demonstrated big-play capability with three receptions of 40 yards or more last season.
The offense has been effective this season, with a high-ranked passing game that has helped the unit possess the ball for an average of 36 minutes per game, but big plays have been absent from the team's repertoire under first-year coordinator Todd Haley.
The Steelers have one play of 30 yards or more in the first three games, a 37-yard touchdown pass to Wallace in the game against the New York Jets.
When it comes to big plays down the field, the Steelers are among the worst in the league. Twenty-seven of the other 32 NFL teams have recorded plays longer than 37 yards.
The longest play from scrimmage in the Denver game was a 27-yard reception by Brown.
The longest in the Raiders game were a pair of 22-yard receptions by Wallace. One was a touchdown that came on a broken play when Roethlisberger had to scramble out of the pocket.
Haley and his players aren't worried about the lack of big plays, though. They believe it's only a matter of time before they happen.
"I know we'll make them," Haley said. "We have the people to do it. We have the quarterback to do it. Those tend to come in bunches. I'm happy with the way we're moving the football. We're moving the chains. The big plays will come. We're not forcing the issue."
The Steelers own the No. 6 passing offense in the NFL and the No. 12 scoring offense. They have been able to move the ball and up and down the field, mostly by piling up the yardage through the intermediate passing game. They certainly haven't been doing it with the running game.
The longest run from scrimmage is 13 yards. Every other team in the league has a longer rushing play from scrimmage.
The intermediate passing game has been particularly effective. They had 16 plays that gained between 10 and 29 yards against the Raiders, all pass plays, all part of a 421-yard output by the offense.
They have 41 plays between 10 and 29 yards in the first three games. Those plays have helped the Steelers sustain drives and are among the reasons they have dominated the time of possession.
"A lot of different guys are being given the opportunity to make plays, not just one necessarily," Brown said. "When you get a collective effort, when everyone is making plays, then that's all that matters."
Roethlisberger said the past two opponents have played more zone defense than usual because they had injuries in their defensive backfield. The Jets were missing Pro-Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis in the game at Heinz Field two weeks ago. The Raiders were missing their two starting corners for the game in Oakland last week.
As a result, both teams were giving their cornerbacks help from their safeties.
"You feel like they've been taking it away," Roethlisberger said. "We called a couple of deep ones. Whether they weren't in the right defense or they doubled our deep guy ... We still have some opportunities to go deep."
Roethlisberger said Haley does not have as many deep passes in his playbook as Arians, but it's not a big difference.
The lack of a running game has something to do with it, too. Opposing defenses have not had to bring defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. With starting running back Rashard Mendenhall likely to return for the upcoming Oct. 7 home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Wallace said the receivers will be able to stretch the field more.
"With [Mendenhall] back, we'll get more guys into the box," Wallace said. "He'll open up some big plays. I don't think we've been calling deep plays like that. Once coach gives us a little more opportunity, I think we'll do a good job with it."
Wallace believes that time is coming. He missed offseason workouts with his teammates and all training camp because of a contract holdout. Now that Haley is developing a better understanding of Wallace's game, Wallace believes the offense will continue to evolve.
"It's a feel thing," he said. "Even though coach has been here the whole time, I wasn't here. I think he's still feeling his players out. I think in a couple of more weeks he'll have a better grasp of what everyone can do. I think we'll try some different things. But right now, I like the way we're moving the ball, the time of possession. We just have to get the wins."
Truth be told, the offense is near the bottom of the list when it comes to things coach Mike Tomlin should be concerned about as the team prepares for the Eagles. Haley has a few issues he would like to work out, including a better success rate on first downs, but for the most part he is pleased with the overall performance from his unit. He also praised Roethlisberger for going through his progressions and not forcing passes downfield when his receivers are covered.
"Most plays we have designed there is a shot aspect of it," Haley said. "If you're not taking the shot, it just means Ben is going through the reads properly and doesn't feel good about the shot and gets the ball to the second and third receiver. I think that's why you're seeing the ball spread around a good deal. A lot of it is what you're seeing on defense. If it's not there, the quarterback is taught to get the ball to the next guy, and he's doing a very good job of doing that."
There have been 63 plays from scrimmage of 40 yards or longer this season, but the Steelers are one of four teams without one. Teams with the most:
Team No. W-L
1. Cincinnati Bengals 5 2-1
2. Buffalo Bills 4 2-1
2. Baltimore Ravens 4 3-1
4. Dallas Cowboys 3 2-1
4. Kansas City Chiefs 3 1-2
4. New York Giants 3 2-1
4. Tennessee Titans 3 1-2
4. Carolina Panthers 3 1-2
4. Houston Texans 3 3-0
4. Detroit Lions 3 1-2
Longest of 2012
Five longest plays from scrimmage
1. Jamaal Charles 91 rush
Kansas City vs. New Orleans
Date: Sept. 23 • Result: TD
2. Pierre Garcon 88 pass
Washington vs. New Orleans
Date: Sept. 9 • Result: TD
3. Victor Cruz 80 pass
N.Y. Giants vs. Tampa Bay
Date: Sept. 16 • Result: TD
4. Cecil Shorts 80 pass
Jacksonville vs. Indianapolis
Date: Sept. 23 • Result: TD
5. A.J. Green 73 pass
Cincinnati vs. Washington
Date: Sept. 23 • Result: TD
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am