On the Steelers: Old song, new twist
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It's playoff time, it's cold and the Steelers may be ready to test the long-held theory that the way to win in such circumstances is to run and play good defense.
Playing good defense goes without question for the team ranked No. 2 overall and that was the third-toughest to run on in the history of 16-game schedules in the NFL.
But, as they have the previous two seasons, the Steelers lean more heavily on Ben Roethlisberger and their passing game to get the job done on offense.
The passing attack has gotten better as the season matured along with their two rookie receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. There are other reasons, such as Roethlisberger's absence through the first four games and the time it took for him to re-adjust to his receivers and the instability of the line through the first half.
The Steelers averaged 181.9 yards passing per game through the first eight games. In the second half, they averaged 268.3. That's a 47 percent jump.
Even better news for their offense is that their running game did not suffer as the passing game improved. It produced five more yards per game in the second half of the season than the first, to 122.8.
Clearly, however, their strength on offense entering their first playoff game next Sunday is the pass. Yet unlike last season, they have paid attention more to the running game and developed more of a semblance of balance.
"We were pass happy," Hines Ward said of the 2009 season. "We just didn't complement our defense. That's always been the case when we were a pass-happy team -- we tore it up statistically, but we have to ... make sure we don't leave our defense on the field too long."
The Steelers traditionally have held the ball on offense longer than their opponents. It happened this season and it happened in 2009. Ward says there is a difference.
"If you really look at it you're supposed to score a point a minute. If you have the ball 30 minutes, you should score 30 points. If you have the ball for 35 minutes and only score 10 points then you didn't do good with time of possession. That's how I look at time of possession."
Whether that equates is difficult to judge because the Steelers scored an average of 23.44 points with an average time of possession of 31:53. Yet for all of the high-flying offense of 2009, they averaged just 20.7 points with a time of possession of 32:24.
Either way, they enter the playoffs this season with a more balanced offense and a more efficient passing game -- Roethlisberger's interceptions and sacks have declined.
And three of their top four wide receivers include two rookies and a second-year player. Hines Ward was the only holdover from last season at his position. Mike Wallace moved from No. 3 to starting split end and Sanders and Brown are new as is, technically, veteran Antwaan Randle El.
No one knew quite what they had at the start of the season and that also might be reflected in those lower passing yards through its first half.
"At first, we really weren't sure,'' Wallace said. "It was me moving over and then El coming back. Hines was the only person still in the same spot. So it's not going to be overnight for things to click for a whole new group except for one person.
"That's why you're starting to see good thing happen."
A week ago, DeMaurice Smith, the Players Association executive director, complained to the Post-Gazette that the NFL is the only league that does not have an independent arbitrator to hear appeals for fines and other punishments doled out by league office.
Smith said that he understood the Steelers' criticisms of the appeals process and that it "emphasizes what we have been and what the players really have been complaining about for decades -- in the NFL, there is no independent arbitrator of fines or punishments. It goes to two hearings officers and the appeal is reviewed by a league official."
The NFL pointed out that is not so.
"We revised the process earlier this year to address his specific concerns," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email to the PG, regarding Smith. "That is why we now have two JOINTLY-APPOINTED and JOINTLY-PAID appeals officers (Ted Cottrell and Art Shell) who hear all the on-field disciplinary appeals. This is De Smith's process and we agreed to it prior to the season."
Whatever the process, it should raise red flags for the union how routinely Cottrell and Shell shoot down virtually every appeal that comes before them and rubber stamp the league's original fine of that player. They denied James Harrison's appeal of his $75,000 fine that the league later reduced to $50,000.
Antwaan Randle El was unique when the Steelers drafted him on the second round in 2002 from Indiana and he continues to be.
No records could be found one way or the other, but Randle El may be the first wide receiver in NFL history to go an entire season without scoring a touchdown but passing for two.
He threw two passes this season, both for touchdowns -- a 39-yarder to Mike Wallace in Cincinnati and the other of 3 yards to Hines Ward in Cleveland last Sunday.
That brought his incredible record as a passer in the NFL to 22 completions in 27 attempts for 323 yards and six touchdowns. It was the only season in which he threw two touchdown passes -- unless the postseason and Super Bowl 40 are included when he hit Ward for that memorable 43-yard touchdown pass.
Randle El's regular-season passer rating of 156.1 is the highest for anyone in NFL history who has thrown at least 12 passes. A perfect rating is 158.3. Adding in his postseason record of 1 for 3 for 43 yards and a touchdown, his rating is 156.4.
That begs the question: Does Randle El, an All-American quarterback at Indiana, wonder what might have been had he been given the chance to play the position in the pros?
"I do," he said, "but then I always go back to my life is designed by God. I know I wanted to play quarterback but He showed me a lot of ways to use the skills I have and he blessed me as a pretty good wide receiver.''
Normally when a team drafts a quarterback on the second round it has plans for him. The Steelers drafted Kordell Stewart on the second round, and Bubby Brister and Neil O'Donnell on the third round. All became starting quarterbacks.
What held Randle El back is his height. He stands just 5 feet, 91/2 inches and that's just not tall enough to convince NFL coaches or personnel men to play him at quarterback.
"I had six or seven GMs tell me they loved me but couldn't take the chance," Randle El said.
He points to a few other quarterbacks of smaller stature who have done well. Michael Vick and Drew Brees are each listed officially as 6 feet tall.
"Vick's not quite 6 feet, I think he's 5-111/2. Breees might be right at 6 feet. I'm 5-91/2."
The worries about smaller quarterbacks are their ability to see and throw over taller linemen, the height of the release of the pass and balls getting batted down at the line of scrimmage.
"You have to look at arm strength, being able to read coverage," Randle El countered. "I know balls get batted down. Brees has the most. It just comes down to being productive. I don't think it's seeing as much. You create your own lanes; Drew Brees does that all the time."
Randle El will have to be content going down in history as the NFL's greatest passer at wide receiver.
"I came out as a wide receiver," he said, "and everybody wanted to see me as a quarterback.''
First Published January 9, 2011 12:00 am