Steelers must let Big Ben air it out

Pittsburgh must cut ties to some old views on offense and let Roethlisberger loose

Originally Published: February 7, 2012
By Peter Keating | ESPN Insider
Ben RoethlisbergerJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesShould the Pittsburgh Steelers let Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball more next season?

The New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI because ultimately, their receivers made big plays and New England's didn't. After 56 minutes of thrilling, occasionally sloppy, dink-and-dunk chess, the Patriots tried to go deep, and couldn't, while the Giants tried to go deep, and did.

And looking forward to next season, there is one team more than any other that should draw inspiration from the Giants' success: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Like the Giants, the Steelers are a venerable franchise and a smart organization, run by old-school ownership and led by a quarterback drafted in 2004 who has made a boatload of clutch plays on his way to winning two Super Bowls. And like the Giants, the Steelers are proud of their blue-collar identity: These are teams with long traditions of smashing opponents at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. But while the Giants successfully morphed into a big-play offense this season -- Eli Manning not only threw for 4,933 yards, but averaged 13.7 yards per completion, third-best in the NFL -- the Steelers were in flux.

It's not just that Ben Roethlisberger suffered a broken thumb and a high ankle sprain, or that injuries kept Pittsburgh's offense from any semblance of continuity. It's that the Steelers kept relying on RB Rashard Mendenhall even though he completely lacked explosiveness, averaging just 1.6 yards after contact per carry last year, 46th in the NFL. (And you can't lay that on the O-line, because Isaac Redman ranked second in the league, but had fewer than half as many carries as Mendenhall.) It's that TE Heath Miller was effective but targeted just 75 times, 20th among tight ends, and often seemed to disappear toward the end of games. It's that WR Mike Wallace started out as a superstar, with 43 catches for 800 yards in the first eight games of the season, but then drifted to just 29 receptions for 393 yards in the last eight. Does Wallace need more help with double coverages? Does he need to run better routes? Did his rapport with Big Ben lose something when Antonio Brown arrived? Nobody's quite sure. But the bombs stopped falling his way after Halloween.

Steelers fans loved to bash former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for everything wrong with their team, and last month Arians packed his bags and went back to work for the Colts, where he was quarterbacks coach from 1998 to 2000. But Arians wasn't responsible for the fundamental problem that underlies all of Pittsburgh's issues: The Steelers want to remain a running team, but they're more effective when they pass. Without Arians, the big question is: How should they run the offense under Roethlisberger now?

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.