PITTSBURGH – No one was happier to see the debut of rookie running back Le’Veon Bell last week than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Bell’s return, coupled with what has been a better job running the ball in general by the Steelers in their past two games, gives the Steelers at least the threat of gaining yards on the ground, something Pittsburgh did not do in its first two games.
In theory, that should make life a little easier on Roethlisberger, particularly by allowing the Steelers some play-action possibilities.
Roethlisberger has long been known as one of the better play-action passers in the NFL. But as the Steelers (0-4) have struggled running the ball and playing from behind, they haven’t had many opportunities to throw the ball off run fakes in the opening month.
As a result, just 12.4 percent of Roethlisberger’s pass attempts this season have been play-action passes, down from 18.7 percent in 2012.
Roethlisberger is still efficient when running play-action, completing 14 of 19 passes for 174 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but the Steelers just haven’t been able to do it enough because of game circumstances.
Last season, Roethlisberger attempted 86 play-action passes in 13 games, completing 61 for 701 yards, five touchdowns and one interception that produced a passer rating of 109.7.
“It’s all predicated on getting positive runs,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Behind a 16-carry, 57-yard effort from Bell – the most for a Steelers running back this season – in his debut, the Steelers forced the Vikings to respect their running game more than their first three opponents had done. When the Steelers did attempt some play-action passes, it had the desired effect, with Minnesota’s linebackers and safeties biting on the run plays, opening things up downfield.
“A couple of our bigger plays – one being a (50-yard pass interference) penalty – came off of play action,” said Haley. “Once we moved the football running it a little bit, it opened up what we wanted to do.”
Playing with the lead would help. Pittsburgh’s biggest lead this season has been 3-0, and the Steelers have trailed by double-digit deficits in each of their four games.
As a result, they’ve attempted just 73 running plays compared to 177 passing.
But the production has improved. After gaining just 76 yards on the ground in their first two games, the Steelers have run for 157 in their past two. More important, the average per carry has improved from 2.5 yards in the first two games to 3.8 over the past two.
“I think it’s gotten better every week,” said Roethlisberger. “I think we’ve cleaned things up, and we’ve gotten better. I thought the young fellow (Bell) did a good job of showing glimpses at times of what he can do. I am excited.”
Odds and end zones
With Arizona turning $3.1 million of offensive tackle Levi Brown’s 2013 salary into signing bonus, the Steelers, who traded for Brown Wednesday, will pay him just under $550,000 for the remainder of this season. ... Steelers cornerback William Gay played in his 100th consecutive game last week, the longest such streak for a cornerback in the NFL.