Renewed Optimism

This past Sunday, Matt Steel got what he's been asking for -- and in bountiful fashion -- from the Steelers.

It wasn't difficult to get excited about the potential of the Pittsburgh Steelers after Sunday's game.

The win over Carolina was nice, but the Steelers still struggled there until Le'Veon Bell busted loose for an 81-yard run.

Losing three defensive starters to injury in Carolina didn't leave me feeling too optimistic, either.

This week's win over the Indianapolis Colts was a different story.

Since the Steelers handed Tampa Bay a gift, I've bemoaned an offense that had lacked balance and play-action passing and relied way too much on short passes.

On Sunday, we finally saw an offensive game plan that was tailor-made for Ben Roethlisberger's skill set.

In the first two drives of the game, that resulted in 14 points, the Steelers threw 11 times and ran 10, with three 3 play-action passes.

In fact, Roethlisberger was nine for 12 for 166 yards and three TDs off play-action, with drops by Martavis Bryant and Heath Miller and an overthrow deep to Antonio Brown.

It's not the play that's executed as designed that I love about the play-action pass so much for Ben. It's the plays he makes when the design isn't open.

On Sunday, the play-action passes with Ben under center were thrown with six to eight blockers staying in. The extra protection typically prevents the line from collapsing around Ben, and gives him room to make a guy miss and make huge plays outside of the play design.

Brian Billick used to talk about how Roethlisberger would do more damage with less volume then any quarterback in the league. The 47-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown was a classic example.

On top of that, these Steelers have a dynamic back in Bell for checkdowns. Twice when the initial reads were covered Sunday, Roethlisberger went to Bell for gains of 8 and 17 yards. That relationship and chemistry will only grow.

I also enjoyed hearing Kelvin Beachum say that the line needsto improve its run- blocking. Because when they face better pass-rushers, they'll need that balance.

The obvious improvement to the offense is Bryant. He appears to be the answer to every fan's prayer. His presence made things easy in the red zone Sunday.

On his first touchdown, Bryant ran a great route and gave Roethlisberger a wide body to drop in an easy touchdown pass. On Bryant's second touchdown, Ben appeared to have a run/pass option. The safety looked to fill the run, so Ben dropped in the fade. Had the Colts looked to double and take away the fade, Bell likely had a nice hole on the left side.

Bryant's ability to stretch the field has done wonders for this offense. Will Johnson was able to turn up a short bootleg pass for 16 yards, as Bryant ran a vertical route on the receiving side. Late in the game, Miller converted a third-and-12 on a short pass and was able to turn upfield as Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey cleared space with vertical routes. Bryant's ability to stretch the field has clearly opened up the offense and made it more dynamic.

Speaking of DH-B, I loved the way Todd Haley used him -- as well as Matt Spaeth and Lance Moore -- in spots throughout the game: Moore in the red zone; DH-B stretching the field; and Spaeth in pass protection. They all did some under-the-radar things to help chip in with the offensive eruption.

Mike Munchak's teaching appears to be making a big impact on Mike Adams. I heard another team's offensive lineman on the radio Monday night talking about how he has improved his technique and compared it to a golf swing. He said the slightest technical glitch can throw everything off. As a golfer, that comparison resonates with me, so I'm hopeful Adams has had the time to hone the technique that can help him reach his potential.

Defensively, can one be excited after a 34-point yield?

But, hey, the Steelers faced an incredible talent playing quarterback. I can barely count on one hand other quarterbacks who might have scored 34 points against the Steelers that day. And I lost count of the times the defense put Luck on his back.

The pressure the Steelers brought was exciting. It looked like the swarming defenses of old. Had the Steelers been able to recover the James Harrison sack/Troy Polamalu strip, they would've been staring at a 42-10 lead.

William Gay gave me flashbacks to October 31st, 2004, against the New England Patriots when Deshea Townsend intercepted Tom Brady for a touchdown to give the Steelers 21 points in the second quarter in the the same end zone, on the same sideline, and from nearly the same distance. The fact that it's Halloween week with another marquee home game scheduled the following week (as when the Steelers faced the unbeaten Eagles the week after the Patriots in 2004) gave Gay's play an eerie feel. For a corner who's played very well the past couple of years, Gay's interception served as a statement that he is the modern day Deshea.

Everyone has to feel excited about the futures of Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, and Daniel McCullers. All three either made plays or flashed big-time talent Sunday. And, man, I love me some Vince Williams. He could be the buck ILB of the future. His intensity and leadership bring to mind the great London Fletcher.

Brice McCain has played well the last few weeks. He's been a great find. I also love Antwon Blake on special teams and remain intrigued about what he can offer at corner, and will probably find out this coming Sunday night.

During the opening drive last Sunday, McCain allowed his only reception with the help of an exceptional throw by Luck and a subtle push-off by T.Y. Hilton. Other then that, Luck's other completions went to backs, tight ends, or whomever Cortez Allen covered.

Of course, it's too early to give up on Allen. We've seen him play well in the past but he's clearly lost his confidence. He even looks shell-shocked sometimes. But it's good to know there's an ace waiting in the hole in Ike Taylor when he returns in a month or so.

Jason Worilds has been providing a steady pass rush the last few weeks. He'd probably tell you he needs to finish off some sacks, but his pressures have been instrumental in creating critical turnovers, and that's always more vital than the sacks.

Also, Polamalu must remain active near the line of scrimmage. He looked faster and more comfortable there Sunday. His presence at the line of scrimmage looks to be the answer to an improving nickel run defense.

The Steelers coverage teams continue to be outstanding. Now if the special teams can just set up a kick return that can get past the 20 yard line, it'd be a step in the right direction. But it's a direction paved with optimism right now.


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