As Steelers struggle, Roethlisberger shines
Ben Roethlisberger wasn't sandbagging. At least, not intentionally.
The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback really did have concerns about how long it would take to develop the rapport necessary to execute Todd Haley's gameplan without drawing the ire of his sometimes combustible new offensive coordinator.
Turns out, it took less than a month.
While the Steelers (1-2) are off to a sluggish start, the arranged marriage between Roethlisberger and Haley is blossoming. The quarterback ranks second in the NFL with a 109.2 rating and is tied for the league lead with eight touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes, five points above his career average.
So much for the concerns about whether Roethlisberger and Haley could co-exist. The two certainly look like they're on the same page through the season's first three weeks.
Whether he's running things out of the no-huddle, firing off a quick hitter to one of the deepest receiving corps in the league or using his legs to extend plays long enough to make something happen, Roethlisberger looks like he's been working with Haley six years, not six months.
''He's made very good decisions,'' Haley said. ''When you see us in quick mode, when the ball is coming out on three-step timing, he's been tremendous.''
Even if Roethlisberger's been forced to holster a bit of his inner gunslinger. Defenses have challenged him to stay patient, taking away the deep stuff and making Roethlisberger settle for shorter passes instead of allowing him to let it fly.
Rather than trust his arm, Roethlisberger is trusting the system. The results have been spectacular.
''I think he's playing as good as any quarterback in the league,'' wide receiver Mike Wallace said.
One who isn't afraid to just make things up as he goes. When Oakland went to press coverage on fourth down in the first quarter last Sunday, Roethlisberger used a hand signal held over from Bruce Arians' tenure as offensive coordinator to communicate with Wallace about a specific route.
Wallace turned the play into a first down, one of two instances Roethlisberger went old school during a 34-31 loss. The quarterback raised some eyebrows after his 384-yard, four-touchdown performance by hinting he ditched Haley's playbook in the second half.
Turns out, he didn't, clarifying on Tuesday he talked to Haley afterward about the hand signals, which are now a permanent part of the offense.
''I know there's some people out there that were saying that I'm resistant to Todd,'' Roethlisberger said. ''It's one of those things, we went to Todd and it's in the playbook now.''
Call it a show of the growing confidence Roethlisberger and Haley have in each other. At times, Roethlisberger has been almost surgical in his approach. Save for a couple of late-game gambles in a season-opening loss to Denver, the quarterback and the coordinator have been in sync.
''He knows when he's hearing my voice in his headset and giving him a call that I'm putting him in the best position for him to succeed,'' Haley said. ''I have to trust him that when I make the call, he's going to make it work. At this point it's been really good and I expect it to continue.''
Having a seemingly endless number of targets, helps. The only skill position player who hasn't caught at least one pass this season is rookie tight end David Paulson.
When defenses have put most of their attention on Pro Bowlers Wallace and Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger has no trouble hitting fullback Will Johnson wheeling out of the backfield. The team's third-longest play from scrimmage so far isn't a bomb to Wallace but a 26-yard toss from Roethlisberger to a player who wasn't even in the league a year ago.
''Ben's in complete control out there,'' left tackle Max Starks said. ''Instead of trying to feel his way through and trying to understand this or that, when he goes out there, he knows what he wants to do.''
Maybe it's just the final step in a nearly decade-long process that's seen Roethlisberger win a pair of Super Bowls but also make his fair share of headlines for his off-the-field transgressions.
The precocious kid who derailed a title defense in 2006 by wrecking his motor cycle and was suspended four games in 2010 for violating the league's personal conduct policy turned 30 last spring. He earned his bachelor's degree from Miami (Ohio) in May and is expecting his first child with wife Ashley this winter.
While not exactly thrilled with the way the team handled Arians' departure - the Steelers said Arians ''retired'' in February only to watch him get hired by the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later - Roethlisberger didn't pout.
Though he and Haley aren't unlikely to be BFFs anytime soon, they're starting to produce the kind of numbers that are reminiscent of the eye-popping totals the Arizona Cardinals put up in 2007-08 when Haley was calling the plays and Kurt Warner was turning Larry Fitzgerald into a superstar.
The Cardinals ended that 2008 season in the Super Bowl, where all Haley could do is watch from the sideline as Roethlisberger led the game-winning touchdown drive in the final moments to give the Steelers their sixth championship.
Now Haley and Roethlisberger are on the same side in Pittsburgh's pursuit of a record seventh ring, the fiery coordinator and the sometimes stubborn quarterback creating harmony one play at a time.
''Ben can be explosive and he's off to that start right now and it's pretty awesome to see,'' Starks said. ''It's awesome to see that maturation when he's on all cylinders.''
NOTES: Steelers S Ryan Mundy was fined $21,000 by the league for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Oakland WR Darrius Heyward-Bey. Mundy knocked Heyward-Bey unconscious after slamming into him during a pass into the end zone during the fourth quarter last Sunday ... Steelers LB James Harrison did not practice on Wednesday. The four-time Pro Bowler had practiced on Tuesday, his first full practice since undergoing minor surgery on his right knee six weeks ago.
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