Steelers striking the right balance
PITTSBURGH — Technically, the calls were different. In the Pittsburgh Steelers huddle, however, the translation was the same: Get the ball to Le’Veon Bell and get out of the way.
Six straight times in the fourth quarter last Sunday against New York, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap, turned around and put the ball in the hands of Pittsburgh’s increasingly versatile and seemingly tireless running back. And six straight times Bell pushed the pile forward, protecting the lead, the ball to help put the finishing touches on a 24-14 victory.
“Obviously we’re trying to end the game and obviously they know that,” Bell said. “We’re just running the ball against their will and they can’t slow us down or stop us. It gives you a motivation boost.”
A reality check, too.
The offense that talked about putting up 30 points every week hasn’t reached that total during the three-game winning streak that’s pulled the Steelers (7-5) out of a midseason swoon and back into the thick of the AFC playoff race. Instead, Pittsburgh is leaning more heavily on a dominant line and Bell’s fresh legs.
Roethlisberger has thrown it 94 times and handed off 87 times over the last 12 quarters. While he insists it’s simply taking advantage of what the defense is giving it, there’s a little bit more at play. The wide receivers behind Antonio Brown have been a bit of a mess due to injuries and the defense is young and thin, particularly along the line. So why not burn the clock, give it to one of the best all-around players in the league and take your chances?
“I think Le’Veon got it going,” said tackle Chris Hubbard, who occasionally enters as a tight end to give the Steelers a little more push up front. “We found what we’re good at and what we’re comfortable with and we got into a rhythm.”
One that might not be so great for fantasy owners but works pretty well on the actual field. It might not look as pretty on the scoreboard as it did while averaging 34 points in their first four victories, but it seems the Steelers are fine with ditching style points for substance.
“At the end of the day, it’s December football,” Bell said. “We understand everybody is fighting for position. We just want to get the job done. That’s all there is too it.”
The explosiveness Pittsburgh showcased early in the year has been replaced by something more pragmatic. The Steelers have 17 scoring drives this season of 10 or more plays. Six of them have come over the last three weeks. It’s also taken some of the pressure off a defense that has risen from 30th in yards allowed to a respectable 14th over the last month.
Roethlisberger gave much of the credit to offensive coordinator Haley, who is among the league’s most creative play callers — look no further than Bell’s option pass last week (which he threw away when nothing developed) — but who also has become pretty effective at adapting quickly. He borrowed the six-lineman formation from Oakland once guard Ramon Foster and tackle Marcus Gilbert returned from injury, freeing up Hubbard to experiment at âtight end.”
While there are at least two calls out of the six-lineman set that send Hubbard out for a pass, in reality when he’s in the game there’s not much disguising what is coming. The fact the Steelers are able to execute anyway is a testament to execution. That’s why the vibe was so electric during that clinching drive against one of the league’s best defensive lines.
“We just got to keep rolling,” Hubbard said. “We want that clock to roll out as much as possible so the other team won’t get the ball back.”
Turns out “keepaway” can be just as effective as putting the scoreboard on tilt. Considering the wintry conditions that potentially await in Buffalo (6-6) on Sunday, the most direct path to the playoffs will likely continue to be through Bell. That’s fine by him.
“I was born for this,” he said.
Pittsburgh’s offense too.