Collier: Time to turn to new page
Thursday, October 14, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Antwaan Randle El usually can feel the approach of the good ones, the big laughs, the ones that are never very far anyway from his ready smile, but a question just before Steelers practice Wednesday made a mirthful expulsion pop from his throat before he could even get his mouth open.

"Preparation?" he squawked almost involuntarily. "Yeah -- it requires a little more preparation."

We were talking about the looming reappearance in the Steelers' offense of the franchise quarterback. Maybe you've heard about it.

Since Antwaan has not caught a pass that has mattered from Ben Roethlisberger since Super Bowl 40, I was wondering if these final days of preparation for the Heinz Field appointment Sunday with Cleveland require more study by Steelers receivers than for a typical game day.

"We've had a whole lot of the total offense in place even before this week, and used a lot," said Randle El, "but the thing is, with Ben, he can come to the line and change everything completely. Even the two calls he made in the huddle, they won't matter.

"If he sees something, you'd better be sure you're on the same page. You have to maintain eye contact with him at all times."

With Roethlisberger at the trigger, Randle El, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Heath Miller, and anyone else Bruce Arians lines up with a pass-catcher's profile will be watching the Prisoner of Park Avenue for something they have not seen this season.

That's right, the football.

No, let's not pretend that Sunday will include the first forward passes of the Steelers' season. Even without No. 7, the Steelers were a passing team about 55 percent of the time. They just were not a pass-completing team, necessarily.

Ward had two catches against Baltimore in the last game. Wallace had two. Randle El had two. Miller had two. Rashard Mendenhall had two. Antonio Brown and Isaac Redman had two between them.

Had Randle El not beaten Ravens corner Fabian Washington down the seam and made a ridiculous catch for a 34-yard gain on the Steelers' second possession, none of Charlie Batch's completions would have measured more than 20 yards.

That kind of performance was fine as long as the Steelers were unbeaten, but now that they are back in the AFC North wash, some alarming pre-Ben trends have come to a harsh light.

Through a quarter of the 2010 season, Ward is on pace for 48 catches, barely half what he managed in 2009. Miller is on pace for 40. Last year, he caught 76. Wallace, who caught 39 in his rookie year, would not duplicate that at the current rate.

"I'm excited; I can't wait for Sunday," Wallace said Wednesday. "Ben's a great player, one of the best in the league, so, yeah, I think we're going to pass more, but I don't think it's going to go completely the other way."

No, I don't expect No. 7 to throw it 45 times, either, but here is what will go completely the other way: when receivers turn free out of the cuts, the football might actually be there. Wallace, for example, will now be able to score touchdowns without the football first clanging off the hands of unskilled defenders, as both his scoring catches have this season. More pressingly, however, Wallace's concentration will have to be optimal, as he is the least-experienced student of Ben-at-the-line pantomimes.

"I think Ben will change at a lot of plays at the line," Wallace said. "He'll give you a hot route at the line, some kind of adjustment. You have to keep your eye on him because Ben is so slick. You've got to pay attention."

The Browns are expected to watch carefully as well, particularly since every touchdown they have allowed from scrimmage this year has been via some sort of projectile. Even at that, the Browns have a chance to make Roethlisberger uncomfortable until he adjusts to the speed of a real NFL game, having not played in one in 91/2 months.

The sooner you see Roethlisberger beginning to call his own game, pointing with both hands and signaling to the perimeter, the nearer Bruce Arians' offense will be to its full personality.

"I think he enjoys that," said Miller of Roethlisberger's last-second decisions. "He's earned that kind of responsibility. B.A. has a lot of trust and confidence in him as well."

You got the distinct feeling that Miller was not worried about finishing 2010 with only 40 catches.

"It's a long season," said the great tight end. "We'll all have our opportunities."

They're thinkin' probably Sunday.

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