The expectations for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers offense are high in 2013, at least among the players and coaches. The unit is excited about the changes that have taken place. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until the season starts to get an idea of what those changes are.
When asked in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Alan Robinson about the changes, Roethlisberger teased, "You'll have to wait until the first game." He went on to slightly elaborate:
It's some compromise from all the different position coaches, the running back coaches, the line, and quarterback coaches. I think we've taken a little bit of everything and made it a lot better. There's been some changes this offseason in some of the offensive philosophies, playbook and some things that I think are good. You can ask anybody on offense that, including coaches, and they'll tell you that we all like the way the offense is and where it's going.
It's apparent that everyone involved in the offense last year wasn't completely satisfied with it. Even though the tension between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley may have been media-driven, it wasn't completely without any substance. The team ranked No. 21 in the NFL in total offense.
However, all of that could be water under the bridge. At least until it doesn't work.
While determining the changes without input from the team is conjecture, it is possible to at least infer what they consist of.
One of the obvious changes revolves around personnel. Gone is the mercurial duo of running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Mendenhall grabbed a one-way ticket on the Pittsburgh-to-Arizona commuter rail. His departure shouldn't cause much of a ripple effect.
While he showed flashes at times, he never developed any consistency during his career in Pittsburgh. Injuries and juvenile behavior kept him from contributing much last season. He played in only six games, rushing for 182 yards on 51 carries. Despite the low volume of carries, he still squeezed in three fumbles.
Newly-drafted Le'Veon Bell looks to be an upgrade in the backfield to go along with Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and recently signed free-agent LaRod Stephens-Howling. Bell is a north-and-south runner, unlike dancing-feet Mendenhall.
Wallace decided to move on to greener pastures with the Miami Dolphins. Pundits are obsessed with his speed, treating him like the fastest man to ever play football. Yes, speed is a good luxury to have, but it's better to have a complete receiver, something Wallace wasn't.
The Steelers still have Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, who aren't exactly lead-footed. Pittsburgh also drafted Markus Wheaton to stretch the field. The rookie has the quick first step and the speed to separate from defenders.
Perhaps the biggest notable absence going into this season involves a player still on the team—tight end Heath Miller. His rehab from knee surgery for a torn ACL is progressing well, but neither he nor the team has an expected timetable for his return.
Second-year tight end David Paulson and free-agent returnee Matt Spaeth will be called upon to shoulder the burden until Miller's return.
Not only have there been personnel changes this past offseason, but some schematic changes have been implemented as well.
The Steelers plan on employing a zone-blocking scheme, a system most notably used by the Denver Broncos under former head coach Mike Shanahan. Such a scheme fits well with center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro. However, a salt-of-the-earth guy like Ramon Foster may struggle, which could make an opening for second-year player Kelvin Beachum.
More importantly, though, is how the backfield will fare in this scheme. Bell should thrive. He has the skill set and football acumen to understand the scheme and show the necessary patience to make it work.
Redman may flounder. He's a bruiser who hits the hole, even one that isn't there, which is better suited with mano-a-mano offensive line play.
Dwyer is the wild card here. He has the "soft feet" to wait and then burst toward an opening. He may surprise in this system.
Passing wise, the Steelers will continue to employ three-step drops with uneven formations conducive to quick outs. They have the right personnel to make this work. Brown, Sanders and Wheaton are fleet-footed receivers who do well in the open field. Even veteran Jerricho Cotchery fits the mold.
Furthermore, Haley won't have the albatross of Wallace's speed hanging around. Having that speed compels teams to feel obligated to use it, oftentimes forcing the action. It happened with the New England Patriots at the end of Randy Moss' time there, and it likely would have happened had Wallace stayed.
Now, the Steelers won't have that excessive temptation. And it's not like the Steelers don't have any speed at the wide receiver position. Indeed, Brown, Sanders and Wheaton all possess enough to go deep.
On the negative, not having Miller around, even if it's only for a few games, will be problematic. His presence forces defenses to cover the short and intermediate interior of the field. Spaeth doesn't have that ability, and the jury is out on whether or not Paulson does.
Roethlisberger appears to have his fingerprints on the new changes. When asked by Robinson in the aforementioned interview whether he had lobbied for any of the tweaks, Roethlisberger responded, "There were some things."
The most glaring request would be more usage of the no-huddle offense that he craves and thrives in. Big Ben loves the control and improvisation that the no-huddle gives him. He calls the plays and audibles at the line.
Such control allows him to make real-time decisions. And it gives the team confidence in his leadership abilities.
However, Roethlisberger has to play smarter with the football. At 31, he's still in his prime, but he can't afford to continue to take a beating.
Hopefully, Haley and company have hammered home that message. That doesn't mean Big Ben has to become a statue back there, but it does mean he has to throw the ball away more often when nothing is there.
Now that Roethlisberger has gone out and publicly raised the bar for the offense, the expectations of the fans will be high. Can the Steelers offense meet those expectations?
It must. Steelers Nation won't tolerate another weak offering. It tepidly gave Roethlisberger and the offense a mulligan after last season while heaping scorn on Haley. It won't be that considerate to him if everything heads south again this year.
Which means that if nothing changes by the end of 2013, the only thing Steelers fans will be expecting at the beginning of 2014 is the name of the new offensive coordinator.