By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has come a long way this season and surpassed the 400-yard mark in the final two regular-season games and nearly reached that level in the previous two as well.
And for veteran wideout Hines Ward, that success couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We had some great play-calling lately and great execution by the offensive line, and we made some big plays,” Ward said. “That’s why we’ve been more successful on offense, especially in the red zone. Things have to be perfect down there against a perfect defense, and we’ve been successful lately.
“The last two games, we played phenomenal on offense. … We were making plays and converting third downs, and then we went on the road and handled business. And we handled it well. We put up 40-some points, and that’s a pretty good job. (And) that gives us confidence going into the playoffs.”
Ward believed the effect on the rookie class was magnified as well.
They’re not rookies anymore,” Ward added. “There’s an understanding that I might have to open things up for the other guys, so I’ll run full speed on a play. And we all have to block, so you’ll see me playing unselfish football more than ever now. In the playoffs, it’s not about stats.
“It’s only about winning, and we all have to sacrifice for the team. I couldn’t care less who catches the balls or whatever. I’m all about winning ball games, so if the other guys can see that they’ll feel the same way. I know they will, but they don’t have a clue about what they’re getting into for the playoffs.”
Rookies like center Maurkice Pouncey and wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown and second-year players Ramon Foster, Mike Wallace and even Isaac Redman, to a certain extent, were crucial to the Steelers’ success on offense this season. But none have playoff experience.
Wallace, however, believes the young guys are as ready as possible thanks to veteran leadership like Ward.
“I’m ready, as ready as I’ll ever be,” Wallace said. “I know it’s going to be an amazing experience, so I’m working hard this week and I’ll work even harder next week in preparation for this next game.”
Ward believed the young guys will learn quickly, as he did, that the NFL playoffs are played at a high level. Higher than the regular season and much higher than the preseason. Ward learned that lesson immediately.
“My first game,” Ward said. “I got popped right in the mouth on the first play, a running play. I don’t even know who the DB was, but he popped me. And I was pissed. So, I played angry the rest of the game and was ready for anything on every play after that in the playoffs. That’s just how it is. It’s an exciting time, and we have to practice like we did at the end of the season.
“That’s with a purpose. Sure, we needed a bye to get some rest and recharge things, but when we get going hard again we have to be efficient. You have to be prepared. If somebody goes down, the young guys have to step in and keep up the intensity. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and we can’t miss a beat. There’s no tomorrow in the NFL. We’re not like the NHL, NBA or baseball.
“We don’t have series like them,” Ward added. “It’s one loss and out. The NCAA Tournament’s like that, too. In those other sports, if you lose, you could come back the next day and try again. It takes more than a couple losses to get knocked out in those leagues, but not in football. One loss, and we go home.”
It’s helped the Steelers offense that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t been sacked too often lately, and he’s been even stingier with throwing interceptions. The club’s offense has been much more efficient in that regard, especially in the red zone, and that’s because Roethlisberger is getting rid of the ball much quicker.
“The line did a great job this past week, and that made it easier for me,” Roethlisberger said. “And that helps me get the ball out much better. But I try to get it out as quickly as possible every time. But when they really do a good job up front, that gives me more time to get the ball to our playmakers.
“My style of play is to try to make a play, and that means I usually have to hold onto the ball. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I didn’t have to in the Browns game, but that’s how that game played out. I guess every game’s different as far as that goes, but we also have a lot more playmakers.
“We had to start utilizing other guys,” Roethlisberger added. “If you have them, you have to use them. We’ve had a few different guys make an impact, especially our two young receivers, and it’s made a difference. You hope you don’t need to use them too early because of injuries, but that happens, too.”
And if it happens on offense during the playoffs, it appears that the Steelers are much more prepared to handle it.