Ben Roethlisberger is in a position at the start of this season he’s never been in before: repeating as the league leader in passing yardage. Roethlisberger finished tied with Drew Brees with 4952 yards in the air.
The Pittsburgh Steelers as a team were just 5 yards shy of the Saints for the most offensive yardage.
This year Roethlisberger also stands as the leader of an offense that could be the best in the league, something that for the Steelers, so often thought of for their vaunted defenses, aren’t too familiar with.
NFL Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers offense could be NFL’s best in 2015
Starting up front, Pittsburgh boasts some of the most talented and youthful position groups in the NFL. As Anthony Murphy noted back in May, the Steelers offensive line had one of their best years as a unit in some time. The addition of Mike Munchak as the coach and improved health created stability and steady improvement. Kevin Beachum graded out as Pro Football Focus’ fifth best tackle in 2014, Maurkice Pouncy finished sixth in centres, and both Marcus Gilbert and David DeCastro finished in the top 25 at their positions. The starters have an average age of just 26.6 years old, and should be entering the primes of their careers.
From the inside, to the outside, Pittsburgh is loaded. The receiving corps is as dangerous as any. Antonio Brown broke out for nearly 1700 yards as the league’s quickest, most elusive, and best route running receiver.
Behind Brown are Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, second and third year receivers who emerged as deep threats for the offense last year. Bryant missed the first six games of last season, but averaged 21 yards on each of his 26 catches with eight touchdowns.
Leon Hall learned about Bryant’s speed the hard way, getting absolutely torched for a 94 yard touchdown in the 4th quarter of a one-touchdown game that quickly became a blowout. Bryant caught another 4th quarter bomb against the Jets just a few weeks earlier. With 1:28 to go, Roethlisberger found the rookie streaking across the field for 80 yards. Bryant’s penchant for timely catches continued in the postseason as he caught yet another 4th quarter touchdown against the Ravens.
Yes, Bryant was raw as a route runner as a rookie like most young receivers are, but spent a month working with Brown this offseason to help refine that part of his game.
Wheaton, a 3rd round draft pick by the Steelers in 2013, struggled with injuries in his rookie season and caught just six passes. He was more reliable in 2014, snagging 53 balls for 644 yards. With Bryant most likely snatching up the #2 spot out wide, Wheaton is poised to be Roethlisberger’s security blanket out of the slot. The position might be more beneficial to the lighter receiver, as he’ll see likely see less of the press coverage he struggled with out wide.
Of course, the key to all of the production the Steelers had last year on offense was their health. They didn’t have a major cog in their offense injured until Week 17, when Le’Veon Bell went down with a hyperextended knee. With Bell out, the Steelers resorted to signing Ben Tate and working him into a rotation with Dri Archer. Replacing a guy with over 2000 yards from scrimmage with one cut from two teams because he was essentially a waste of a roster spot isn’t something most teams plan for, but it’s a big reason Pittsburgh’s offense faltered against the Ravens.
Bell was dynamic on the ground and through the air last season, carrying the ball 270 times and nabbing 83 receptions. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ best running back, while playing more snaps (943) than almost every other running back in the league (Matt Forte played 1006). Bell and the offensive line grinded defenses down as Bell gained 52% of his yardage after contact.
Bell’s impact on the ground also forced opposing teams to pay attention to the run, as Pro Football Focus recorded that Roethlisberger threw 10 of his 32 touchdowns on play action passes.
This offseason, Bell was suspended for a DUI and drug charge incident from August 2014, and had his original three game suspension knocked down to two. The Steelers signed former Panther DeAngelo Williams in the offseason as help, but they’re hoping last year’s 3rd round pick Dri Archer can put points on the scoreboard.
Archer won’t be expected to shoulder much if any of the load when it comes to eating up yardage – his responsibility is to break the game open. “The important thing is that we do have a role for him if he is going to have a helmet on Sundays and he gets his five and six touches a game. Any one of those plays he has the chance to take it to the house with that speed”, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said in a Q&A with the Pittsburgh Tribune back in March.
Archer ran a 4.26 in the 2014 combine and possesses blazing speed. That speed was on display during the Hall of Fame game this past Sunday. Archer only had a few carries but one of them included a 15 yard gain that was as quick as a 5 yarder. Although yes – it was preseason – many people, including NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, noted Archer’s feet may have just moved too fast for his own good.
Archer is a couple stumbles away from 2 long TDs
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) August 10, 2015
Archer has talent, no doubt, but he only got 21 touches last year and could be a no factor again without the right play calling.
This might be the best situation Roethlisberger has ever had: a developing offensive line, diverse stable of wide receivers, and one of the best running backs in the game when around.
In March, Mike Tomlin said the Steelers had the potential to be the very best offense in the game; come January, he might be right.
PITTSBURGH, PA – JANUARY 03: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is introduced prior to their AFC Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on January 3, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)