When offensive coordinator Todd Haley joined the Steelers, much was made of how he had gone with an aerial attack when he had Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, then went heavy on the run with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones in Kansas City. His most admirable trait was to let the players drive the scheme.
After the 2012 preseason game against Buffalo, I wrote to friends, "The Steelers' future is the screen pass."
At the time, I was particularly impressed by a short comeback route on the sideline on which journeyman Derrick Williams caught the ball at the line of scrimmage, and Mike Adams sprinted to the sideline to take out a cornerback on the move, springing Williams for the score. I remarked that Adams, DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey had the tools to develop into the best in the game at their positions in terms of open-field blocking.
This was a marked departure from the lumbering behemoths the team had across the board for the bulk of Bruce Arians' tenure.
DeCastro was injured in that Buffalo game and missed most of the season. Brown, the ideal WR screen recipient, was limited by an ankle injury that season. Pouncey spent the next season on the shelf. Adams? Well his pass blocking has kept him off the field.
So some of the parts for the screen game went missing; some were defective. But even with some setbacks, the Steelers installed the scheme that had Roethlisberger throwing 61 screens to wide receivers and tight ends in 2013, and 125 passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage — more than 21 percent of all attempts.
Neither of which takes into account the number of other plays that are crafted to use the screen game as a diversion, with Roethlisberger free to choose between the screen and other options upon seeing the defense. All told, probably between a quarter and a third of the offense was built on the foundation of the screen pass.
And that's without Pouncey, and with Le'Veon Bell missing time with, and then working his way back from, a foot injury. That's after Chris Rainey flopped, and before the addition of Dri Archer - who has better tools to work with, if he can stay healthy.
Bell appears to be the kind of receiver Rashard Mendenhall was billed as, piling up 424 yards after the catch to get to 399 receiving yards last season. He looked even better opening day, converting a second-and-14 screen pass for 23 yards on the strength of Pouncey's annihilation of the Browns' prize free-agent acquisition, Karlos Dansby.
Pouncey's detractors will tell you that he looks so good on the second level because he's too quick to exit the first level, leaving his linemates hanging out to dry. To whatever extent that observation is accurate, it's a weakness that's turned to a strength by a well-managed screen game, in which his assignment is to basically pretend to block on the first level before heading downfield.
It's also akin to the old basketball adage that you're supposed to feed the ball to the big man on offense to keep him focused on the dirty work on defense. The screen game allows Pouncey to have his fun pushing around little guys, so maybe he won't feel the urge to leave the trenches early on running plays.
Screen plays were scarce in the second half of opening week, but on the Steelers' next-to-last drive Bell got 19 yards on a play in which Pouncey sealed off Dansby and DeCastro got a hand on Donte Whitner to add six or eight yards. I also want to note that Justin Brown's blocking out of the slot was helpful all game.
My point is this: The key pieces are all finally in place for an offense heavy on screens and getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. For better or worse, that's a big part of the "identity" Haley talked about the offense having found.
That screen game didn't produce any big plays against Baltimore but did turn out a couple of decent gains by Bell; a pass to Markus Wheaton for a first down; a TE screen to Heath Miller that converted 3rd-and-long with 7:09 left in the second.
But, for anyone calling for Dick LeBeau's head after this game, his 10-yard cushion scheme worked just fine with the 270-pound-plus stud edge rushers and the immovable, explosive nose tackle the Ravens put on the field to run it.
With those players, the Ravens were more than happy to sit back, give up the underneath pass, and wait for mistakes. This strategy made it tough to get the yards after catch that Haley covets. Steve Smith broke a couple short passes for big gains against the Steelers' secondary, and losing Brown for part of the game hurt the Steelers chances of matching that after-catch production.
Meanwhile, Elvis Dumervil destroyed Marcus Gilbert when they did attempt to go downfield on the last drive before the half ended. The next time they looked downfield, with 12:00 to go in the third, Gilbert surrendered his second sack.
It's par for the course after a Steelers loss for fans to call for "letting Ben be Ben" by throwing downfield. But the downfield opportunities weren't there. The coverage was too deep, and the pass rush too consistent.
And when the Steelers' limited tackles face tough matchups, opportunities might be hard to come by. At least until the run game and the screen game break through for some big gains and force the secondary to try to fix leaks sprung at the line.
The Ravens won the game with the same big cushions and same short passes the Steelers were using. Deep threat Torrey Smith was targeted just three times, with one catch, for 10 yards. The Ravens, like the Steelers, adopted a strategy of safe plays on both sides of the ball, waiting for the opponent to make a mistake.
On the first two drives, Justin Brown fumbled, and Roethlisberger threw a nine-yard pass six yards off target to Brown, who appeared to have mostly daylight between him and the end zone. Two mistakes that likely cost the Steelers 10 points, and maybe 14. Miller also coughed up a fumble, and Roethlisberger overthrew Miller before the half on third down, forcing a punt. That's four drive-killing mistakes.
In short, the Steelers offense left a lot of points on the field with mistakes. Almost surely enough to have made a game of it.
The defense had plenty wrong with it, and I plan to take a closer look at that for next week.
But for now, I'll just say that it seems like many of the defense's problems start with the front office looking past LeBeau's tenure with the expectation that acquisitions will be playing most of their careers for somebody else. I'm put in mind of "Office Space," in which the character Milton has his paychecks stopped because the powers that be would rather avoid the confrontation involved with firing him.