The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 31, 2012

Offensive line, scheme keep Roethlisberger clean

PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger is running out of things to complain about.

In a good way.

The perennially banged-up Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback – who never met an injury he didn’t try to shake off – is spending less time running around the pocket and more time watching his receivers and running backs do the work in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s short-passing game.

Call it “dink and dunk.” Call it a “Three Rivers” version of the West Coast offense. Whatever it is, it’s keeping Roethlisberger’s jersey clean and the Steelers humming.

“We have an offense that’s working right now, that’s all that matters,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “No matter how we put up points, that’s what matters at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter what the offense is called.”

At the moment, “hot” comes to mind.

The Steelers (4-3) have won two straight heading into Sunday’s game against the New York Giants (6-2) and Roethlisberger is thriving. He’s on pace to set career highs in attempts, completions, touchdowns and quarterback rating.

Funny how that happens when you’re upright.

Haley’s system encourages the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly to take the sting out of the pass rush, and after some very public growing pains – Roethlisberger was constantly under duress in the season opener against Denver – things have started to click.

Near the season’s midway point, Roethlisberger has been sacked just 13 times and is getting dragged down just once every 22 pass attempts. Compare that to his career average of one sack every 11 pass attempts and Pittsburgh’s offseason plan to keep its franchise quarterback healthy appears to be working.

Other than the typical bumps and bruises, the closest Roethlisberger has come to an actual injury is the sprained right ankle he sustained a couple weeks ago when he stepped on a lineman’s foot in practice.

“I feel great just like I did last year at this time,” Roethlisberger said.

He’s well aware things can change quickly. He took a beating over the final month of the 2011 season, getting his left ankle mangled in a win over Cleveland in December. Though he attempted to fight through it with his usual grit, he wasn’t quite the same and the Steelers lost to Denver in the wild card round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh drafted guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams with its first two picks in last April’s draft. DeCastro remains out indefinitely with a knee injury, but veteran replacement Ramon Foster has thrived in DeCastro’s absence and Adams is proving to be a quick study at right tackle in place of injured starter Marcus Gilbert.

The running game that struggled early in the season has caught fire under third-year back Jonathan Dwyer, who has topped 100 yards in each of the last two games.

And while Haley brought in new terminology that Roethlisberger likened to learning a new language, the fiery former Kansas City Chiefs coach also streamlined the blocking schemes. The result is less confusion. Having to work for only two seconds instead of five helps, too.

“We have to hold up in protection enough to have him make the reads, make the throws,” left tackle Max Starks said. “If it’s two, five, seven (seconds), it doesn’t really matter for us because our assignments are so much clearer than it was in the past where it kind of changed every single week.”

Roethlisberger remains one of the best in the NFL at improvising when things break down. His 7-yard touchdown strike to Heath Miller in a 24-17 win over Cincinnati two weeks ago looked like dozens of other busted plays in his career, Roethlisberger moving around the rush like a mischievous toddler avoiding his parents’ grasp while Miller shook loose in the back of the end zone.

The thing is, Roethlisberger doesn’t have to freelance as often. Haley puts a premium on letting the skill players do the work and the Steelers have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. Thirteen players have caught passes this season, including little used tight end Leonard Pope and first-year fullback Will Johnson, both of whom hauled in touchdowns in last week’s 27-12 romp over Washington.

“We have a lot wider array (of plays) in the playbook where we’re so balanced teams don’t know which way to take us,” Starks said. “We can exploit things and keep defenses more honest. Before they could pin their ears back and say, ‘they’re in sub, they’re in drop back, they’re going to pass the ball.’ They can’t do that now.”

Not with Dwyer thudding between the tackles. Dwyer has been a revelation in place of Rashard Mendenhall, who remains slowed by a strained right Achilles. Dwyer gashed the Redskins for 107 yards last week, including a 13-yard run on Pittsburgh’s final drive that helped run the clock down to the final seconds.

It was the kind of “close out” play the Steelers lacked in crucial situations a month ago. But with the line getting into a rhythm in front of a quarterback that is in the midst of perhaps his finest season, Pittsburgh is starting to win the battles up front it was losing late in games earlier in the year.

With the second half looming in an unpredictable AFC, the Steelers will happily take their chances against the field with a healthy – and apparently happy – Roethlisberger leading the way.

“We’ve just got to do our job up front,” Foster said. “You see the results of him getting the job done.”

NOTES: Steelers rookie NT Alameda Ta’amu apologized for his Oct. 14 arrest following a run-in with police on the city’s South Side neighborhood that resulted in more than a dozen charges, including several felonies ... The Steelers made room on the active roster for Ta’amu by releasing CB Damon Cromartie-Smith ... Safety Ryan Clark practiced on Wednesday and expects to play against the Giants. Clark left last week’s game against Washington in the third quarter with a concussion.

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