Another week without Ben Roethlisberger is another week of metaphorical Russian Roulette with a Steelers offense still searching for an identity. Usually, if Pittsburgh was two games into the regular season and had managed one measly offensive touchdown, a bunch of stalled drives, and enough punts to make you worried that ROBO-PUNTER’s surgically repaired left knee might fly off his leg some point soon, we’d be assembling the torch-and-pitchfork crowd.
Yes, a Ben-less Steelers offense is a punchless one. At least with five-plus quarters of an inexperienced Dennis Dixon followed by two quarters and change of Charlie Batch more concerned about not dying behind a piecemeal offensive line than trying to complete a pass downfield.
That’s a slight exaggeration, partly because the o-line rotation had to do with the combination of injuries (Starks before the game and Essex during it) and the oppressive Nashville heat. But also because the Steelers defense has done most of the heavy lifting this season. They bottled up Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, and beat up Vince Young and Chris Johnson to the point that one got pulled and the other wished he had.
And now Pittsburgh heads to hot, humid Tampa and it’s Charlie’s turn to start. Dixon’s on the shelf after knee surgery, Byron’s back on the 53-man roster but still recovering from a preseason knee injury and Batch will start his first game since 2007.
I’m cool with that. And I suspect most of you are, too. (Obvious exception: Gretz.) Look at it this way: name a team at any level — NFL, college, junior high, whatever — that can start their fourth-string quarterback and fans are relatively confident that it will all work out. Clearly, a lot of that has to do with a defense that already looks more dominating than it did at any point in the 2008 season, and playing the Bucs, a hapless bunch off to a surprising 2-0 start.
I’m sure the game plan will emphasize running the ball and avoiding turnovers, and letting the defense take care of everything else. Fine. Just something to keep in mind for Sunday, at least before a stiff breeze breaks Charlie’s femur and we see Leftwich: despite finishing last Sunday 5 for 11 for 25 yards, Batch’s numbers could have been much better. Heath Miller had a chance on a third-down pass, as did Mike Wallace (both were well defended). Wallace also had a touchdown reception called back on a holding penalty, and Hines bobbled a fade pass in the end zone.
Tomlin talked about it at his Tuesday presser: “Those are the kind of plays that need to be made. Competitive plays, yes; combative plays, yes. But those are the kind of plays you’ve got to make for a quarterback, particularly when you’re playing with one who hasn’t played a bunch or is in a backup situation. We weren’t able to do that. That’s why we haven’t been able to ring the scoreboard up by 7s.”
And that’s the thing: little things add up and have a big impact. Luckily, the defense has played out of its mind and the offensive shortcomings haven’t been an issue. Well, for most of us. I’ve heard some fans complaining that Bruce Arians has been too conservative through two games, which, frankly, is hysterical. Partly because no matter what Arians does, people are going to hate him, but due to the fact that THE STEELERS ARE WITHOUT BIG BEN AND PART OF THEIR OFFENSIVE LINE. AND, OH YEAH, IT WAS 200 DEGREES IN TENNESSEE.
For the record, I have no problem with BA’s playcalling so far, although I’m guessing a double-reverse pass-option on third-and-goal from the one-yard-line isn’t far off.
In the meantime, I’m eager to see what Charlie can do, especially since the Bucs will be without free safety Tanard Jackson, who was suspended earlier this week for being really, really dumb. Apparently, he violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy for the third time, which is an automatic 16-game suspension. Maybe this means more downfield opportunities for Mike Wallace (or Manny Sanders or Antonio Brown). That would be nice.
Whatever, as long as Pittsburgh can weather the storm (or in this case, stifling humidity) for two more weeks, help is on the way. I just pray the o-line holds up long enough that we don’t have to see Antwaan Randle El. Or Casey Hampton. Or Brian Jackson, despite the dual-threat possibilities.