Steelers thrive with passing game
by Kevin Goheen
The Cincinnati Enquirer
November 11, 2011
Ben Roethlisberger(notes) #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field on October 30, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Things used to be different when a defense planned to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The smash-mouth element of the running game is still there but when it comes to covering the Pittsburgh passing game, the days of daring the Steelers to throw it over your head are over.
"I used to be able to cheat coverage against them a little bit," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, recalling his days as a defensive coordinator. "You can't cheat coverage much anymore."
The Steelers come to town for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium with a passing attack that will challenge a Bengals defense that, for all of its impressive stats this season, has had issues when it comes to giving up big plays through the air.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is averaging a career-high 35.7 pass attempts per game and is third in the NFL with 2,632 passing yards, while receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown have brought an added speed dimension to go along with Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
Roethlisberger's forte of scrambling to extend plays will make it more important for the Bengals secondary to be disciplined in its assignments.
"It's a challenge every week, but this group is a special group," said safety Reggie Nelson. "They're very explosive and that's something we have to eliminate, all of those explosive plays, as DBs. They're faster than they were last year and any other year. It's crazy how fast this whole group is. It's going to be a challenge for the whole secondary."
Wallace, a third-year player, is tied for fifth in the league with 47 receptions. He has 13 catches of 20 or more yards and leads the NFL with six catches of 40 or more yards, including three for touchdowns. Five of Wallace's six touchdowns have been from at least 25 yards out and, according to the web site ProFootballFocus.com, he has dropped just one of the 65 passes thrown his way.
For comparison, A.J. Green of the Bengals has 40 catches, 11 of them for 20-plus yards and four of 40 or more yards.
"He's always been a big-play guy but since the first time I played him a couple of years ago, he has progressed into more of a total receiver," cornerback Leon Hall said of Wallace. "He runs all of the routes. It's not like you line up against him and think that you have to just run deep. I think they've been doing a great job of that and of getting him the ball at every route."
Wallace and Brown have a combined six 100-yard games between them this season while assuming larger roles. Ward is fourth on the team with 26 catches and suffered concussion symptoms in last Sunday's 23-20 loss against Baltimore. He has been cleared to practice and has not been limited this week.
"(Wallace) is a guy that's pretty bold in his desire to be great, but more importantly than that we see day-to-day work habits that are pushing him in that direction," said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin. "I think (Brown) has done a nice job of coming in and following the example of a young guy who is just a year older than him in Mike Wallace. The same things that I just said about Mike Wallace essentially apply to Antonio Brown as well."
The Bengals are ranked fourth in the league in overall defense (based on yards allowed), 10th in passing yards per game allowed and fourth in points allowed.
Of the eight touchdown passes they have allowed this year, half have been for at least 25 yards. They've also been hit with chunk plays that have set up other scores; Seattle had four pass plays of 31 or more yards two weeks ago, including two on consecutive plays.
Tennessee had three pass plays of 20 or more yards last week, and scored on a 16-yard pass with 14 seconds remaining in the first half when there was miscommunication between Nelson and cornerback Kelly Jennings that left receiver Lavelle Hawkins alone in a corner of the end zone.
Roethlisberger has been sacked 26 times this season, more than any other quarterback, but he keeps plays alive with his ability to elude rushers and get out of the pocket.
"As a defensive back, that's scary when you've got a quarterback that can hurt you with his arm and his running by extending plays," said Nelson. "As a secondary we're going to have to keep tight coverage on receivers until the whistle blows, because you never know. It can look like they've got him down and he's extending the play."