More Robinson: Steelers season preview
LANDOVER, Md. – One step, one block, one perfect catch or one perfect throw.
"It's a good place to be with two weeks left before the season starts," Randle El said after Friday night's 17-10 loss to Washington.
But considering how pro football is pretty much required to be a symphony of stepping, blocking, throwing and catching, is it really a good place to be? If this were the end of July, sure, we could buy it. But late August? And with one preseason game left – in which no Pittsburgh starter should see significant action?
If anything, the time left to tune up the struggling Steelers' offense has shrunk from a calendar month to an egg timer. And anyone who says it's a good place is ignoring reality.
Randle El didn't appear to be facing the facts Friday when he insisted that "the offense isn't struggling" and "it's nothing to worry about." That's a creative perception for a first-team unit that has gone 13 preseason drives without a touchdown and has seen last season's league darling, Ben Roethlisberger, repeatedly overthrow his receivers en route to a quarterback rating of 30. It's the same Roethlisberger who was pressed about the offensive problems earlier this week and told reporters, "I don't think it's any kind of an issue."
How's this for an issue? Six-of-15 passing for 57 yards against the Redskins, with no touchdowns and one Hail Mary interception. As far as first halves go, it was one of Roethlisberger's worst.
"We had different guys lining up in different positions, and right now we are just not in sync," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "I just know right now, we are not where we need to be. … Today was a little bit of a reflection of how we worked in camp this week. For whatever reason, we missed a lot of opportunities."
In a small way, the Steelers deserve the benefit of the doubt. They were working against a Washington defense that still looks like one of the best in the NFL. To boot, top receiver Hines Ward played only the first quarter, and running back Jerome Bettis left early with a calf strain. But their absences only shed light on a deeper issue – that of Roethlisberger's development. We forgot an important factor about his dream rookie season last year, and now we are being reminded of it: One thing that made Roethlisberger so great was the talent surrounding him.
Some of those layers that buffered Big Ben from destruction slowly have been peeled away, leaving the Steelers with a significant problem. With Duce Staley injured, Plaxico Burress in New York, starting offensive linemen Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross elsewhere and some of the chemistry from last season's receiving corps gone, the onus is on Roethlisberger to make things right.
While fans and even coaches pooh-poohed the free-agent departures of Burress, Vincent and Ross, the truth is that Pittsburgh lost some veteran presence with those players – particularly Burress, who, despite his drops, was a far bigger loss than was portrayed. Not only was the 6-foot-4 Burress a close friend of Roethlisberger's, but he also served as a security blanket for the young QB.
Burress helped boost Roethlisberger's confidence early last season by catching four touchdowns in his first three starts, and his two touchdown grabs in a 34-20 win over New England provided a launching pad for Roethlisberger. Burress' injury in late November coincided with Roethlisberger's December decline – a slump that caused Roethlisberger to throw five of his 11 interceptions in his final three regular-season games.
That's right around the time Roethlisberger began floating passes – a trend that led to disastrous results in the postseason (five interceptions in two games, including two returned for touchdowns) and has continued this preseason. Part of that has been blamed on continuity, with Ward's two-week holdout and free-agent pickup Cedrick Wilson's introduction into the offense. And leading up to the Redskins game, the big complaint was that the first unit simply hadn't taken enough snaps in preseason games to iron out the wrinkles.
That same beef was repeated again after Friday's loss.
"It's just going to take work," Roethlisberger insisted. "We're working with Hines now. I think once we get guys into the positions they are going to be in, it will be a lot easier."
In fairness, not all of the offense's problems have been caused by Roethlisberger. He has had a few of his passes dropped, and some of his receivers haven't made the right adjustments. The injury problems with Staley and now Bettis don't help, either. But that's the rub: Pittsburgh needs Roethlisberger to come in this season and enhance the surrounding talent, rather than be protected by it. So far – and yes, it's only preseason – he hasn't delivered. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week, which ran the headline "Madden '06 video game gives Big Ben no respect." The topic? A 1,000-word story partially devoted to the popular video game ranking Roethlisberger as the 12th best quarterback in the NFL (blasphemy!).
Given the history of Steelers quarterbacks who have gone down the tubes after successful starts, such an adoring perch quickly can be toppled. If Roethlisberger regresses this season, nobody will care if he's the centerpiece of ESPN commercials or whether he's using his helmet when he rides his motorcycle. Ultimately, all they will care about is his production.
As much as players want to insist "we're on the same page" and "there's no reason to panic," the clock is ticking. The Steelers and Roethlisberger have two weeks to accomplish what they haven't been able to produce in the last month.