|Best Steelers offense since the '70s? Ward wonders if it's so|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 16 November 2007 10:55|
Maybe he doesn't have to.
With the Steelers (7-2) positioning themselves for another high seeding in the playoffs, there are significant differences between this Mike Tomlin-coached team and any of the previous 15 teams coached by Bill Cowher.
Namely, they're running the ball as effectively as ever, but they're throwing it better than they have since Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw was at quarterback.
Tomlin hasn't exactly turned Ben Roethlisberger loose to throw it 40 times every game, but this Steelers offense could be developing into the most diverse and difficult to stop since the Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris days.
While NFL statistics can be difficult to compare given the major differences in strength of schedule, the Steelers go into Sunday's game at the Jets (1-8) with the league's second-leading rusher in Willie Parker (873 yards) and the No. 2-rated quarterback in Roethlisberger, who has 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Only New England's Tom Brady (33 touchdowns, 4 interceptions) has more scoring passes and fewer interceptions, and only Brady has a higher QB rating, 131.8 to Roethlisberger's 110.2.
Ward remains one of the league's best middle-range, possession-type receivers despite missing several games with a knee injury. Santonio Holmes (6 touchdowns) provides a deep threat that often forces teams into double coverage.
Heath Miller (6 touchdowns) is one of the most productive tight ends in the league with dependable hands and the kind of size, at 6-foot-5, that creates difficult matchup problems.
``He is a Pro Bowl tight end,'' Roethlisberger said. ``He's got big hands and he's a big target. He's going to catch 99 balls out of 100.''
Against Cleveland last Sunday, the Browns were so focused on covering Ward and Holmes that Miller made five catches for 71 yards and the deciding touchdown as Pittsburgh won 31-28.
``Teams are starting to see if Ben can read coverages and are trying to take away the two wide receivers, but I don't know why they'd leave Heath one-on-one,'' Ward said. ``He's earned the respect around the league as one of the better tight ends.''
As Roethlisberger matures and develops into a legitimate team leader, the Steelers have upgraded themselves offensively without making any lineup changes except along the line. Sean Mahan replaced the retired Jeff Hartings at center and Willie Colon took over for Max Starks at right tackle.
Roethlisberger is back to playing the way he did when he went 13-0 as a rookie starter in 2004 and went on to win the Super Bowl a season later. In fact, he is better statistically than he was for those teams.
In their 75-season history, the Steelers have never had a quarterback throw for 30 touchdowns and a running back gain more than 1,000 yards in the same season, but they will likely accomplish that this year.
Bradshaw's 28 touchdown passes in 1978 are a team record, and Roethlisberger could wind up with close to 40. Parker is on pace to match the 1,494 yards he gained a season ago, the third most in club history.
``It's going to be real hard for defensive coordinators to key in on one guy because we've got a bunch of playmakers in our offense,'' Ward said. ``I think we're starting to play together and starting to feel comfortable. We're thinking, `Hey, my guys are going to do everything they can (to win).' And Ben's throwing it up there and trusting we'll come down with it.''
Of course, Ward realizes how one bad game or one expert defensive scheme can ruin a playoff run or a season. The Steelers learned that while losing in the AFC championship game during the 1994, 1997, 2001 and 2004 seasons.
``There were teams in the 1990s that I thought had great players, so how did we win a Super Bowl (in February 2006) and those teams didn't?'' Ward said. ``What I know is I like where we are right now. We're starting to jell, figuring out the whole scheme of things, how we want things to run. We've got a bunch of unselfish guys right now and we're not worrying about our stats.
``Are we playing our best football right now? No, but I like where we're headed.''