IT'S ONE of the most intriguing pairings of the season: Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, the blustery quarterback and the hotheaded offensive coordinator, together in the Steel City. Under Bruce Arians, Roethlisberger often seemed to be running his own show, but with his longtime coordinator and close friend now in Indianapolis (the Steelers let Arians's contract expire) that may be about to change. Haley, the former Chiefs coach who's known as much for his sideline explosions as for his inventive play-calling—as Roethlisberger says, "He's the only guy who's ever made Kurt Warner curse"—arrives to shake up a unit that last season scored its fewest points since 2003.
Everyone seems to be waiting for the first blowup between QB and coordinator, but playing nice with Roethlisberger is far from Haley's only concern. While Pittsburgh will be filling a few holes on a defense that allowed the fewest yards in the league for the third time in five years, the offense is much more unsettled. On the perpetually problematic line, first-round pick David DeCastro was slated to start at right guard but suffered a knee injury in the third game of the preseason; once again the unit tasked with protecting Roethlisberger is in flux. There's the backfield, which will be without Rashard Mendenhall, who's recovering after right ACL surgery and is out indefinitely. And there's the receiving corps, which has seen top wideout Mike Wallace hold out through most of August and lost the leadership of 14-year vet Hines Ward, now retired.
Critics said Arians's attack depended too much on Roethlisberger, who reached 4,000 yards for the second time but needed a career-high 513 attempts to do so. The offense dropped to 21st in scoring (lowest for the Steelers since 1998) and reached the 30-point mark just three times. Haley, who successfully ran a breathless shotgun offense as coordinator in Arizona and a power running game in Kansas City, wants a balanced attack, though he doesn't exactly plan to turn the clock back to the ground-and-pound 1970s in Pittsburgh. "Our strength is that we're going to be versatile," says Haley. "There's a group here that can hurt you in a lot of ways."
Haley has restored the fullback and will use two-tight-end sets to help the running game, which until Mendenhall's return will rely on fourth-year back Isaac Redman. He has made just two career starts, but one of them was his 121-yard eruption against the Broncos in the wild-card loss in January. "I've been waiting my entire life for this opportunity," says the 27-year-old between-the-tackles bruiser, who dropped 10 pounds in the off-season to become, he says, "All-the-Way Redman, not just Redzone Redman." Adding a new dimension is fifth-round rookie Chris Rainey of Florida, a burner who could thrive in an offense that includes more short screens and quick passes. Rainey will play a hybrid role as a change-of-pace back and slot receiver. He'll return kicks too.
In the end Haley's offense will still revolve around Roethlisberger's big arm and the playmaking of wideouts Antonio Brown, coming off his first 1,000-yard season, and Wallace, who will have to learn the new complex playbook, which Roethlisberger has called the Rosetta Stone. During camp, as Haley worked with Roethlisberger on installing more no-huddle plays and more swing passes to the backs, there were no signs of discord. Haley laughs at the suggestion that Pittsburgh is holding its breath to see what happens the first time he gets in Big Ben's face. "I'm a passionate guy, but I've always done what I've believed was necessary," Haley says. "The situation here is unlike any I've stepped into—this is a championship team with all the pieces in place."
Haley was a Steelers ball boy in the 1970s and '80s, when his father, Dick, was the director of player personnel. He knows as much as anyone that the organization, which is coming off back-to-back 12--4 seasons, prides itself on continuity. "I'm not here for any radical makeovers," he says. "I'm here to keep the Steelers' train running." This year that will be no small challenge.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 12
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 12--4
9 at Denver
16 New York Jets
23 at Oakland
11 at Tennessee (Thu)
21 at Cincinnati
4 at New York Giants
12 Kansas City (Mon)
25 at Cleveland
2 at Baltimore
9 San Diego
16 at Dallas
Will the Steelers' defense continue its dominant run? If there's a weak link, it's in the secondary, where Pittsburgh lost veteran cornerback William Gay to free agency—a potentially big blow to a team whose zone defense relies heavily on its corners. With the experienced Ike Taylor starting on one side, the Steelers expect opposing quarterbacks to attack his opposite number "every single week," secondary coach Carnell Lake says.
Pittsburgh is counting on a big year from Lewis, who has shown flashes (including a spectacular interception that sealed a win against the Chiefs in Week 12) but has also been benched by coach Mike Tomlin for his lack of discipline. The 2009 third-round draft pick from Oregon State, who played in nickel packages last year, this spring declared that he was going to be a Pro Bowler in 2012—bold words for a player who has made one career start. (No Steelers corner has made the Pro Bowl since Rod Woodson in 1996.) Cortez Allen, a 2011 fourth-round pick from The Citadel, had an impressive camp and will push for playing time. In other words, for Lewis, it's now or never.
Yards allowed per snap by the Steelers in eight road games in 2011, best in the league. The NFL average was 5.8.
NFL-low yards per play allowed by Pittsburgh's defense on first downs, better by half a yard than second-ranked Baltimore.
Times the Steelers ran to the right—compared with 131 left—for an NFL-high differential of 122. (The league averaged 16 more runs to the right.)
PETER READ MILLER (REDMAN)
Under Haley, Redman and the rest of the backs will see more of the ball, often through the air.
CHRIS SZAGOLA/CSM/LANDOV (LEWIS)