I know we shouldn’t put too much into preseason numbers because, well, it’s the presason. But at some point, you also have to acknowledge that what Antonio Brown has accomplished in three weeks is the personification of Mike Tomlin’s “there’s more than one way to protect the quarterback” theory that had most of us rolling our eyes when he first said it three years ago.
(I’ve written in painstaking detail on the topic, most recently last November, so if you want the extended version, knock yourself out.)
“There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback,” Tomlin told the media shortly after the 2008 draft landed the Steelers Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed in the first two rounds.”You can get linemen or you can get him weapons — people that people have to account for. Obviously with [the Mendenhall] pick, we’ve gotten a weapon. So what he is able to do on a football field will help our quarterback and our football team.”
Lights Out Limas fell short of expectations, but if it makes you feel better, just pretend Pittsburgh used a second-rounder on Antonio Brown and the sixth-rounder they got from the Cardinals as part of the Bryant McFadden buy-back program on Sweed. In the end, all that matters is that Ben Roethlisberger has not only the best wide receivers he’s ever seen in Steelers unis, but one of the best pass-catching corps in the entire league.
Think about that for a second.
This is the same outfit that won the Super Bowl six years ago with Hines Ward, Cedrick Wilson and Antwaan Randle El (then-rookie Heath Miller was second on the team with 39 receptions). But those names don’t even properly portray the level of mediocrity; Willie Parker was Pittsburgh’s fifth-leading receiver (he had 18 catches for 218 yards).
The Steelers were still built around the run back then; it was Ben’s second season in the league and it wasn’t until the playoffs that Ken Whisenhunt let his QB wing the ball all over the yard.
So, yes, the offense’s philosophy has changed as Ben has matured, and while most of us began the month worrying about Manny Sanders and his troublesome feet, I now find myself wondering how the hell opposing defenses are going to stop Ben, Mike Wallace, Brown, Sanders, Miller, and Mendenhall. And those are just the Steelers’ best playmakers. There’s still Hines, Jerricho Cotchery and Isaac Redman.
I’ll let JJ speak to the intricacies of the offensive line, but Marcus Gilbert wasn’t the worst left tackle I’ve ever seen blocking for Ben. I know it’s almost impossible for rookie offensive tackles to crack the starting lineup but if Nate Solder, a guy most draft experts and personnel types considered extremely raw coming out of college, is competent enough to protect Tom Brady, then I’m all for giving Gilbert every opportunity to win the gig. It’s not like he’s in competition with Orlando Pace; we’re talking about Jonathan Scott, the same dude who got yanked after one play during the Panthers’ game last season.
Whatever happens with the five fat dude responsible for keeping Ben upright, this much is certain: this offense is going to be extremely dangerous. Everyone talks about the Ravens (presumably because Joe Flacco is a winner and Ray Lewis refuses to retire), but Anquan Boldin is Ward — a tight end split out wide — Todd Heap is gone and Lee Evans is a faster version of Derrick Mason. And that’s it. Baltimore’s No. 3 reciever is rookie Torrey Smith, who looked so lost against the Eagles in Week 1 of the preseason that the team promptly traded for Evans.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have five legit wideouts: two “blink and they’re gone” threats (Wallace, Brown), two “zone-busters” (Ward, Cotchery), and a guy who can do both (Sanders). How do you defend that?
Defenses may have minimized Wallace’s impact this preseason — he has two catches for nine yards — but it comes at price: Brown has nine receptions for 230 yards (a staggering 25.6-YPC average) and three touchdowns. And Ben is 21 of 31 for 361 yards (67.7 percent), four touchdowns, zero picks, and a 146.6 passer rating.
I don’t remember ever being this excited about this group’s potential. A lot of that is because of what Brown has down the past three weeks, but some of the optimism comes from accepting the fact that, to borrow a well-worn Laird-ism, the o-line is what it is. Which, on a good day, is average.
But, hey, there’s more than one way to protect the quarterback.