Behind Enemy Lines: Questioning the Steelers

As Ben Roethlisberger says, these aren't the Steelers of the 1970s … or even five years ago. There is much for Minnesota fans to learn about the 2009 Steelers, so Tim Yotter of went to Jim Wexell of for the answers to the questions he knows so well.

Tim Yotter: The Steelers are ranked so highly in a number of areas. How did they lose to Chicago and Cincinnati in back-to-back games?

Jim Wexell: Well, for one, everybody gets their adrenaline flowing for the defending champs. Two, the Steelers were still finding their offense. Against Chicago, after Jeff Reed missed two easy field goals when trying to do what Gary Anderson was trying to do in the '98 semifinals, the offense tried to run the clock out like it still had Jerome Bettis – and the Bears caught them. Against Cincy, the Steelers blew another late lead by trying to run the clock out. Injuries to their two best playmakers on defense, Troy Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons, also hurt the Steelers as those home teams rallied in the fourth quarter.

TY: Ben Roethlisberger has a completion percentage of 72.6, in the range of a Peyton Manning. What's been the key to his success this year?

JW: He's in his sixth year and is not only in his physical prime, but he understands the entire offense. He's now more than a QB who makes plays on the run; he can see it all from the pocket. Plus, he's getting time, he has receivers, he has a between-the-tackles runner, and Bruce Arians has been with him throughout his career and has enough trust in Roethlisberger to allow him to call his own plays when he goes no-huddle, which is quite often when they play at home. Arians was asked by Cleveland reporters after the last game about the difference in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and why Pittsburgh has so much more success, and Arians had a one-word answer: "Stability." I think that's part of this answer, too.

TY: Is the reliance on the passing game due more to necessity with a running game that seems to still be searching for its identity or are the offensive coaches content with relying on the passing game that much?

JW: The passing game is working. The linemen are better pass-blockers. The tight end is a better pass-catcher than blocker (so is the second TE). The third wide receiver, rookie Mike Wallace, has the kind of deep speed to open up the middle of the field for Heath Miller and Hines Ward. The transition from Willie Parker to Rashard Mendenhall, and now Mendenhall's transition stage at the start of his career, has curtailed the run game a bit, but the belief in Pittsburgh is that it's already a run game that's good enough to help not only with balance, but in opening up the pass game even more.

TY: The Vikings have struggled in defending tight ends this year. Is Heath Miller one of the most underrated guys on the team?

JW: Miller might not be as tall and athletic as Tony Gonzalez, or as big and locomotive as Antonio Gates, but he's a winner. He has great hands and good enough athletic ability to match his courage. He understands the game and Roethlisberger, and their work together since 2005 has really put them in tune with each other. The key word in all of that is "winner."

TY: What are some of the things you believe has made Mike Tomlin pretty much an instant and, so far, sustaining success in Pittsburgh after his one year in Minnesota?

JW: Mike Tomlin, as you know, is just plain smart. He was smart enough to leave certain things intact when he got here; he was smart enough to let people do their jobs; he was smart enough to gain the team's attention with a fiercely physical first camp and then smart enough to back off to save their bodies in subsequent years. He grabs your respect with first the respect he gives you and then his speaking style. It's truly motivational. But, then again, you know all of this in Minnesota. There's so much more, but I think you get my point. He's just a bright guy.

Jim Wexell is a longtime beat writer of the Steelers, working for Tim Yotter is the publisher of

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