PITTSBURGH — With Ben Roethlisberger returning Sunday against the Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers are making a change on offense.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, held out the past three games so fellow rookie Antonio Brown could return kicks, is expected to be among the active players on Sunday.
Uhh, is that it?
With Roethlisberger under center again for the first time since January, there will be changes all around. There will be more pass blocking responsibilities for a line that has been used primarily to run block. Rashard Mendenhall might have to be content with fewer carries despite his 103 yards per game average.
And players who were motivated to show they could win without one of the NFL’s most successful quarterbacks — the Steelers are 3-1 — must prove there won’t be a letdown now that he’s back.
“We’re glad to have him back because he’s our quarterback, but that doesn’t unload us from a responsibility standpoint, all of us,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “All of us need to, in terms of putting our hand in the pile and getting the job done. That’s an element of the equation that I’m highly conscious of and I’m making sure our team is.”
Right guard Doug Legursky, for example, started two games with Charlie Batch at quarterback, but now must be ready to adjust to the more-mobile Roethlisberger abruptly changing a play by taking off with the ball. Roethlisberger also tends to hold onto the ball longer than most quarterbacks do, and that means extra pressure on the linemen to maintain their blocks, and more sacks.
For the wide receivers, it likely means more deep passes. For tight end Heath Miller, it likely means a lot more receptions; he only has 10 so far.
“It definitely opens it up,” said Mendenhall, who averages 22 carries per game — seven more than a season ago. “You can’t play strictly run, you can’t play strictly pass. When you’re able to get a defense off balance, it’s good for the run and pass as well. Ben adds those big plays in the passing game, so we’ll have that dynamic as well.”
The Steelers aren’t likely to remain dead last in the league in passing now that Roethlisberger is back, either.
“No disrespect to the other guys (Batch and Dennis Dixon), they did a phenomenal job, but we’re a better ballclub when he’s out there,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “It’s great to have him out there. We’ve got to be balanced. We’re not going to shy away from the run. … We just have to catch up our passing game with our running game and Ben allows us to do that.”
Until Roethlisberger returned to practice last week, the Steelers hadn’t seen him for a month. He didn’t practice with them during his four-game suspension, and his only playing time came in three exhibition games. There’s a considerable difference in game speed now that the season is under way, and Roethlisberger is a month behind everyone else in catching up.
Not that the Steelers expect him to take long to get up to speed.
“Practice is one thing, games are another,” Tomlin said. “Ben has been very active over the time he’s been away in terms of throwing and working on his game, but that’s not playing football. Just like practice performances aren’t playing football. There’s no substitute for stepping inside a stadium and playing under duress and the atmosphere that legitimate NFL football provides. He won’t have an opportunity to answer those questions until Sunday.”
The identity of the Steelers’ offense for the rest of the season also won’t begin to emerge until then. The Steelers still must prove they’re intent on remaining balanced and relying on the run more than they did the past two seasons, when they became increasingly pass-heavy.
Roethlisberger threw 506 passes last season and 469 in 2008, up from 295 during his rookie season in 2004. At the same time, the Steelers’ rushing attempts dropped from 618 in 2004 to 428 last season.
“Now that we have him back, we can do a lot more things,” wide receiver Mike Wallace said. “And the offense is definitely going to go in another direction. It won’t change too much but, at the same time, we’re going to throw the ball because we’ve got one of the best guys back.”