AFC North: Todd Haley

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he expects rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier to play more Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs visit Heinz Field.

Shazier has played primarily on special teams the last two weeks after missing the previous three games with a high-ankle sprain.

Shazier, a first-round draft pick, has missed seven games because of knee and ankle injuries. The Steelers are making Shazier earn his spot back, and Vince Williams and Sean Spence have been playing ahead of him alongside Lawrence Timmons.

Shazier played just four defensive snaps in the Steelers’ 27-20 win at Atlanta last Sunday. The 6-1, 234-pounder could play a bigger role this week since the tight ends are a big part of Kansas City’s passing game.

“We’d like for him to get a few more snaps,” LeBeau said. “I think he’s about 100 percent now and that’s good to see. He’s a tremendous athlete, can really run, and we really like him.”

A couple of notes:
  • If Todd Haley has an opinion about which one of the Steelers’ Big Three has been the team’s most valuable player, the offensive coordinator isn’t saying. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le'Veon Bell are second in the NFL in passing yards and rushing yards, respectively. Wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL in catches and receiving yards. “I am not really paying attention to any of that,” Haley said in regard to team MVP discussion. “These guys are performing at a high level though. But they need to continue to do that because we have the biggest game of the year this week. We probably have to play our best game.”
  • Cornerback William Gay has returned all three of his interceptions this season for touchdowns to thrust himself into consideration for the Pro Bowl. LeBeau, who had 62 interceptions during a Hall of Fame playing career, said, “Will has always been a really intelligent player and if he gets close to the ball he’s going to get his share of interceptions. I think we’re just seeing Will doing what Will Gay does.”
  • Roethlisberger has been voted NFL FedEx Air Player of the Week for the second week in a row. Roethlisberger won the award after throwing for 360 yards and completing just over 77 percent of his passes in the Steelers’ win over the Falcons.
CINCINNATI -- Ben Roethlisberger surveyed the defense and told himself not to believe what the Cincinnati Bengals were showing.

That is why the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback stuck with the pass play that offensive coordinator Todd Haley called even though he had the option of changing it to a run.

And it was exactly the kind of derring-do that coach Mike Tomlin wanted to see from his quarterback, even with the Steelers backed up on their own 6-yard line at a critical juncture of the AFC North game.

“We just were not going to live in our fears today,” Tomlin said. “We needed to be aggressive and create some splash. It worked out for us.”

Did it ever.

Martavis Bryant blew past Bengals cornerback Leon Hall, and Roethlisberger hit the rookie wide receiver in stride for the longest play (94 yards) in a game that was full of them.

The second-longest pass play in Steelers history propelled Pittsburgh to the 42-21 win that only added intrigue to the most compelling division in the NFL.

It came after punter Kevin Huber pinned the Steelers inside their 10-yard line with just under nine minutes left to play in a 28-21 game.

Bryant, who had gone from rookie sensation to just plain rookie in the Steelers’ previous two games, caught Hall looking for the run, and he ran a simple go route. Strong safety George Iloka had strayed too far to the middle of the field to do anything but join Hall in a futile chase of Bryant.

“I knew it was coming,” Bryant said with a grin. “It was just a perfect call.”

Tomlin called it “Football 101.”

“[Defenses] are usually aggressive when you’re backed up and they want to keep you backed up,” Tomlin said after the win that allowed the Steelers to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens and put them percentage points behind the Bengals in the AFC North. “Opportunities are usually there. It’s more about whether you are willing to take the risk.”

Roethlisberger took the risk even after the Bengals cornerbacks played off the Steelers receivers and their safeties stayed back before the snap.

Roethlisberger called Cincinnati’s bluff, and after a play-action fake that left Hall flat-footed and moved Iloka too far out of position for the strong safety to provide any help, Bryant made the easy catch-and-run that defined their offensive explosion after a scoreless first quarter.

“I didn’t quite believe that the safety was not going to come down [in run support],” Roethlisberger said. “Either I got lucky or saw something right.”

There were plenty of smiles in the Steelers’ locker room after their most impressive road win of the season. There was some sandbagging, too.

Antonio Brown, who had yet another 100-yard receiving game, was asked how teams know that the ball is going to him and running back Le'Veon Bell and can’t stop either, and the two-time Pro Bowler smiled.

“Luck,” he said.

The Bengals know better.

They also can attest that if the Steelers’ other skill players take advantage of their opportunities, as Bryant did with an exclamation point, that Pittsburgh’s offense could be the difference in a division that is a three-team race with three weeks to play.

“They get the headlines and do a lot for us,” Tomlin said of Brown and Bell, “but the other guys step up and answer the bell when their number is called. That creates a level playing field for Brown and Bell to both continue doing what they need to do.”
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has no plans to scale back Le'Veon Bell's workload.

And that is just fine with the second-year running back, who is too focused on the Steelers finishing strong to worry about whether too many touches will wear him down or adversely affect him later in his career.

“I can’t think eight years down the line if I’m blessed to play that long,” Bell said. “The biggest thing for us is to win the games now. I don’t know how long I’m going to be playing, nobody does, so I’m going to play every snap like it’s my last.”

Bell played all but two of the Steelers’ 90 offensive snaps in a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday.

The Steelers have to lean so heavily on Bell for two reasons: He is too good of an all-around player to take off the field for anything more than a breather and there is no proven depth behind the 2013 second-round draft pick.

“He is a workhorse type of back,” Haley said of the 6-1, 225-pounder. “He seems to thrive the more he touches it. He was out here on Wednesday this week after 80-plus plays and a lot of touches last Sunday. And he looked no worse for the wear. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, we have to ride him.”

Bell is the only NFL player with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. He is on pace for 288 carries, and if Bell comes in at less than 300 totes that wouldn’t even rank among the top 10 as far as carries in a season by a Steelers running back.

Of course, Bell is also on pace for just under 90 receptions, which is why questions have been raised about how much is too much at a position where players can fade as quickly as they burst onto the scene because of too much wear and tear.

Not that Bell is thinking about longevity with the Steelers needing to win at least three of their last four games to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“I just want to get as many carries or touches that’s needed to win the game," Bell said. "If it’s eight carries so be it. If it’s 25 so be it.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Running back Le'Veon Bell has now saved the Pittsburgh Steelers twice on "Monday Night Football," and the second-year man was a little less subtle about it this time.

Bell's 43-yard catch-and-run against the Houston Texans in Week 7 served as the catalyst for 24 unanswered points that propelled the Steelers to their first of three consecutive wins.

On Monday, Bell simply pounded the upstart Tennessee Titans into submission when the Steelers again found themselves on the precipice.

The Steelers were trailing by 11 points in the third quarter when offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally got out of his own way and called one run after another for Bell.

Recommitting to the run, which the Steelers got away from when they blew an early 10-point lead, allowed them to rally for a 27-24 win and avert what would have been a disastrous loss.

[+] EnlargeBell
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsLe'Veon Bell rushed 33 times for 204 yards and a touchdown on Monday against the Titans.
The timing of Bell's 204-yard outburst, which came courtesy of the block party the Steelers' offensive line threw at frosty LP Field, couldn't have been better, for several reasons.

The Steelers go into their bye week with a 7-4 record and in pretty decent position in both the AFC North and AFC playoff picture, despite their maddening propensity to play down to their competition.

They did that again against the Titans, before Bell and the offensive line grabbed control of the game, while Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak watched with what had to be a most satisfied smile.

Munchak spent more than 30 years with the Oilers/Titans as a player and a coach before he was fired as the team's head coach this past January.

The play of the line, after a shaky stretch in which they could not keep the Titans off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, showed why the hiring of Munchak was considered one of the Steelers' most significant offseason acquisitions.

The Steelers turned to the run after falling behind 24-13, and the Titans couldn't stop them, even though they knew it was coming.

That proved to be the case when the Steelers drove 72 yards in eight plays and scored a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter to cut the Titans' lead to four points. That proved to be the case midway through the final quarter, when the Steelers got the ball back while nursing a three-point lead.

They ran 10 plays, eight of them runs by Bell, before Roethlisberger took a couple knees to end the game.

"Maybe two or three different plays we were running, but we were executing at a high level," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "I heard a couple of guys say, ‘They keep running the ball over here. We've got to stop it.'"

They couldn't because Bell and the offensive line worked so well together that they produced the football equivalent of finishing each other's sentences. The line provided a consistent push and openings for Bell, even when Tennessee started stacking players close to the line of scrimmage.

Bell, meanwhile, exploited any cracks that surfaced in the Titans' defense.

The 196 yards he gained between the tackles were the most by any NFL back this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I love running the ball, but those guys love running the ball more than me -- that's the craziest part," Bell said of the Steelers' offensive line. "Those guys kept moving guys off the ball and making my job easy."

Rushing yards had not come easy for Bell recently, even during the three-game win streak. He rushed for a combined 169 yards in those games. Add in the 36 yards he managed in a 20-13 loss to the New York Jets, and Bell averaged 51.3 rushing yards in his previous four games.

That stretch seemed like a distant memory when right guard David DeCastro talked about what a "blast" it was for the Steelers to impose their will on the Titans -- just when it seemed their season would get away from them.

Bell couldn't stop smiling as he talked about an offensive line that allowed him to record just the fifth 200-yard rushing game in Steelers history. That was one of many superlatives the 2013 second-round draft pick produced on a night when the Steelers had to win any way possible but ultimately did so on their terms.

"We don't have enough time to talk about what [Bell] did tonight," Roethlisberger said. "I'm so proud of the way he bounces back. Catches the ball, runs the ball, power, finesse. When he runs, it's like poetry in motion."

PITTSBURGH -- Wide receiver Markus Wheaton is in his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and he has learned one important lesson.

If he wants to catch extra balls after practice from a JUGGS machine he needs to do everything he can to make sure he gets in line ahead of Antonio Brown.

“With him,” Wheaton says with a smile, “there’s no telling how many he catches. Usually you’re out there waiting for a while.”

Brown’s tireless approach to getting better has made him one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

Brown has made the Pro Bowl twice in his first four seasons even though he lasted until the 195th pick of the 2010 NFL draft. And, barring injury, he will hold team records for the most catches, receiving yards and all-purpose yards by a player in his first five seasons before the end of 2014.

[+] EnlargeDominique Franks
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDespite being 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Antonio Brown is known for stiffarming opponents in the open field.
And, says the 26-year-old Brown, “You still ain’t getting the best part of my game yet. I’ve still got room to grow.”

In many ways, yes.

But Brown stopped growing physically after he reached 5-10, and his relative lack of size is the biggest reason why he is just starting to get mentioned among the top players at his position.

The NFL has long been enamored with tall wide receivers, and Brown is at the forefront of smaller players re-asserting themselves as premier pass catchers. After the 10th week of the season six of the top 10 players in wide receiving yards were 6-feet or shorter.

Brown topped the list in both catches and receiving yards heading into Week 11, and no less an authority than Jerry Rice has said he is the best young wideout in the game. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell says he is the best wide receiver, period.

“I know others guys are bigger and maybe have better career numbers, but if you look at who’s doing it right now who’s doing it better?” said Mitchell, who is in his first season with the Steelers after previously playing for the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders. “He plays like he’s 7-feet tall. He stiff arms safeties when he’s running the ball, and have you seen him lose a jump ball?”

Watching Brown stiff-arm an opponent or run with the ball in the open field makes it clear that the 5-10, 186-pounder is blessed with exquisite instincts.

And he did not get stiffed in the gene pool either, as his father, Eddie Brown, is a former standout wide receiver who in 2006 was voted the best player in the history of the Arena Football League.

But ask those who are around Brown on a regular basis the secret to his success, and they contend that there is no secret: Brown simply refuses to let anybody outwork him.

He never slows down, not even in offseason practices. Brown sprints to the end zone every time he makes a catch in the non-contact practices, a habit that the Steelers coaches make sure to point out to his teammates. During the season Brown puts in a full day at Steelers’ headquarters, and then two nights a week he will also go to a local gym to get in another workout.

“Just my regimen,” Brown says with the easy smile that is also one of his signatures. “That’s what I do.”

His teammates aren’t nearly as nonchalant about what Brown does.

“How many No. 1 receivers in the NFL are catching punts in practice and running it all way back for a touchdown?” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says. “Then Dri [Archer] steps up and [Brown] tells him to get out because he wants another one. His work ethic and demeanor and attitude are just unbelievable. He’s literally nonstop and I’ll grab him and pull him aside and make up a fake conversation just to keep him out of running so many (punts) back and wearing himself down. His work ethic and attitude are just unbelievable.”

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who has been coaching in the NFL since 1997, agreed.

“He works as hard as anybody that I have seen,” Haley says. “He is very driven to prove that he is among the elite guys at his position right now. I think from a big picture standpoint, he is one that they will talk about for a long time.”
PITTSBURGH – Todd Haley did not give himself a pass for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ lackluster performance in a 20-13 loss to the New York Jets last Sunday.

“When it’s a poor performance, it takes everybody,” the Steelers’ offensive coordinator said on Thursday. “That goes for me as well.”

The lack of production from the Steelers’ offense was the most surprising development last Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

The Steelers had averaged 41.3 points during a three-game winning streak but they managed just one touchdown against the Jets, who started a pair of backups at cornerback and were 1-8 entering the game.

The Steelers did not find the end zone until there was just over a minute left in the game when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

Take away that play and the Steelers managed just 182 yards of offense against the Jets.

The Steelers also committed four turnovers against a team that had three takeaways in its first nine games. And they failed to run the ball effectively for the second consecutive game as the Steelers managed just 36 rushing yards on 17 carries.

Pittsburgh has a more favorable matchup Monday night at Tennessee as the Titans are allowing 136.6 rushing yards per game.

"We want to run the ball efficiently. Last week, we were probably disappointed in the way we ran it. We fell behind and stopped running it for the most part,” Haley said. “There will be games where we feel the best way to win is by throwing it. There will be games where we feel the best way to win is to try to run the heck out of it. But obviously the more balanced you are, which I think we have the chance to be a really balanced group because we can run and pass against anybody, then you have a chance to be real good.”
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is second in the NFL with 1,144 yards from scrimmage, and the second-year man is on his way to obliterating at least one team record.

Bell has 47 receptions, just five shy of establishing a Steelers’ single-season record for catches by a running back.

Bell’s skills are such that the Steelers use him as a legitimate receiver and not just a safety valve for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

That was evident on the Steelers’ first touchdown last Sunday night in a 43-23 over the Baltimore Ravens, when Bell caught a 5-yard pass from Roethlisberger on a fade pattern. How many times do you see that from a running back?

“He is pretty unique,” Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He is a big, fast guy that has a great feel. When you combine those in one player, it’s a pretty good player to have generally because he is going to be quarterback-friendly because he is going to understand what he is seeing coverage-wise and he has the skills to do great things after he catches it. He does something every week that wows you.”

Bell’s emergence as a dynamic all-around back -- which he showed signs of becoming in the second half of last season -- is just one reason why the Steelers could have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL if they can build on what they have done the last three weeks, as the Steelers are averaging 41.3 points during a three-game winning streak.

“I feel like we have done a lot of great things but I still think we feel like we have left some things out there. We didn’t run the ball well enough last week,” Haley said. “This isn’t a game of perfection but against some pretty good competition, we’ve done a lot of good things and that should give our guys confidence that if they go out and keep working hard and do their job to the best of their ability, then we can have some very good performances.”
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PITTSBURGH -- Frustrated Pittsburgh Steelers fans were fitting offensive coordinator Todd Haley for a dunce cap and planning for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s imminent retirement after an embarrassing 31-10 loss at Cleveland on Oct. 12 dropped them to 3-3 and into last place in the AFC North. Boos rained down on the Steelers the following week at Heinz Field after they fell behind the Houston Texans 13-0.

A flurry of touchdowns at the end of the first half vaulted the Steelers into the lead against the mistake-prone Texans, and they haven't looked back since. The Steelers have won their past three games by an average of 14.7 points and they are only .021 behind the first-place Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North.

MVP: Wide receiver Antonio Brown. For those wondering what the two-time Pro Bowler could do for an encore after setting a Steelers record with 1,499 yards in 2013, Brown has been even better this season. The fifth-year veteran is on pace to catch 126 passes for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns. Coach Mike Tomlin compared Brown’s impact on games to that of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, and consistent double-teams have done anything but slow down Brown. He gets the nod over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown an NFL-record 12 touchdown passes in his past two games.

Biggest disappointment: Cornerback Cortez Allen. The player whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract in early September has been demoted twice this season. Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions, but he played only one snap in a 43-23 win over Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night after losing his job at nickel back to Antwon Blake. It is way too early for the Steelers to give up on Allen, who turned 27 last week. But they have to hope he weathers this tough stretch because the Steelers are lacking in developmental cornerbacks right now.

Best moment: Trailing the Texans 13-3 in a Monday Night Football game, the Steelers exploded for 21 points late in the second quarter. The defense, offense and special teams all fed off another as a Steelers team that had managed three touchdowns in the previous two games scored three in a span of 1 minute, 36 seconds. A season obituary was ready to be written after the Texans controlled most of the first half at Heinz Field. But the Steelers scored 24 unanswered points, propelling them to a 30-23 win that saved their season.

Worst moment: The Cleveland Browns, already missing several key players on defense, lost Pro Bowl center Alex Mack to a season-ending knee injury during their Oct. 12 game against the Steelers. That still didn’t stop them from drilling their archrivals at the Dawg Pound. It got worse for the Steelers after their 31-10 loss when Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said, “We had so many injuries across the board it’s hard to believe we could have beaten a college team.” Ouch. The loss was only the Steelers' third to the Browns in their past 23 meetings and marked the low point of the season.

Key to the second half: The Steelers will go as far as their offense takes them. It has finally played up to its potential during a three-game winning streak in which the Steelers have averaged 41.3 points. The defense has shown marked improvement while the Steelers have gone from 3-3 to 6-3, and Pittsburgh is starting to get after opposing quarterbacks. The Steelers can score with any team if the offense continues to play at a high level. The emergence of rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant only adds to the riches that the Steelers have at the skill positions.
PITTSBURGH -- Is Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown the best player at his position in the NFL?

Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson builds a strong case for Brown, who leads the NFL with 719 receiving yards this season after finishing second in the league with 1,499 receiving yards last season.

Monson calls Brown a "modern day version of Jerry Rice" since he doesn’t have the greatest measurables but makes the game look easy at times because of his innate understanding of it.

The PFF piece is the latest example of Brown starting to get his due as a premier wide receiver. In the past there were questions about whether the fifth-year veteran was a legitimate No. 1 receiver, because he is 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds in a league that covets tall wide receivers.

"From the day I got here he wasn’t a household name other than special teams, and you’ve just seen the guy ascend and put himself up there with the great receivers in the game right now," said Todd Haley, who took over as the Steelers' offensive coordinator in 2012. "He continues to get better, and that’s the exciting thing."

Brown is having an All Pro-caliber season even though no one has emerged as the Steelers' clear cut No. 2 wide receiver, something that would help divert some attention from Brown. Markus Wheaton, who starts opposite Brown, has slumped after a promising start, and former No. 3 wide receiver Justin Brown was a healthy scratch last Monday night.

Wheaton, Brown, Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and rookie Martavis Bryant are all trying to solidify roles, and for now the Steelers are content to play their receivers -- well, at least the ones not named Antonio Brown -- based on situations.

"You’d love to see somebody jump up and say, 'Hey, we can’t have this guy off the field,' and that’s usually the way it works, so right now we’re kind of in that process and we just need guys to make plays," Haley said. "When your number’s called you need to step up and make the play, and if you don’t there’s some guys champing at the bit to show that they can do it."

The Steelers don’t seem to be in a hurry to set a hierarchy after Brown, the two-time Pro Bowler. It could change on a weekly basis, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he doesn’t have a problem with a largely rotating cast at wide receiver.

"We work every day with all of them, so it’s really just knowing who’s out there on a particular play, because each guy may run a route a little bit different," Roethlisberger said. "As long as I know who’s in there as we’re going, I’m fine and I feel confident with whoever’s in there is going to make a play."
PITTSBURGH -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has generally refrained from commenting on criticism of the Pittsburgh Steelers by former coach Bill Cowher and Hines Ward, the organization's all-time leading receiver.

He did fire back a bit at Steelers' critics in a one-on-one interview with ESPN's Lisa Salters, who will be a sideline reporter for tonight's Houston Texans-Steelers game.

"They don't know what they're talking about because they're not here so we kind of just laugh it off," Roethlisberger said. "A lot of people outside of this locker room are going to talk, are going to point fingers. We don't have time for that."

Ward leveled the strongest criticism against Roethlisberger last week, placing blame for the Steelers' offensive struggles on the veteran quarterback.

Ward said Roethlisberger's play-calling is the biggest reason why the Steelers are No. 31 in the NFL in red zone efficiency. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said last week that Roethlisberger has called less than 30 percent of the plays this season.

Roethlisberger declined to comment directly on Ward's criticism to last week.

He told Salters that he looks at criticism from Ward and Cowher as coming from the media -- even with their deep ties to the Steelers' organization.

"A lot of the media likes to point fingers," Roethlisberger said, "and a lot of times they don't know what they're talking about."
PITTSBURGH – Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is well aware that the Pittsburgh Steelers have to become much more efficient when they are inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

But Haley also reviewed where else the Steelers are squandering points, and he said he came up with more than 10 plays outside of the red zone that cost them about six points per game.

“I did a study [Wednesday] night,” Haley said. “It’s easy to statistically point at the red zone and say we just aren’t good in the red zone. But I came up with 11 plays, getting knocked out with a sack or a penalty, in the fringe area, that we got no points. We dropped balls in the end zone that cost us four points because we had to settle for a field goal. Touchdowns came off the board against Cleveland the first game. I counted 37 points [from] non-red zone plays that you would statistically look at that we left out on the field by getting no points in most cases.

“We would take those 37 points in a heartbeat. Yes, we want to score when we get in the red zone. We want to score touchdowns. But we have to be a smart football team in that fringe field-goal area because we can’t afford not to get those three points, and we end up with zero, like it has happened too many times this season in six games.”

Haley said the study affirmed to him that the Steelers are taking the right approach offensively even though they are sixth in the NFL in total yards (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game).

"It really did, because again, that’s just getting the minimum points. That’s not counting the times we could have scored a touchdown. That was based on kicking the ball through the uprights and taking the three points,” Haley said. “We would be averaging 26.5 points and it would match up with 400 yards per game, and we would be up there where we need to be scoring points, and we would probably have at least one, maybe two more wins.”
PITTSBURGH -- Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians did not see his forced retirement coming in 2012.

ESPN’s Tim Keown wrote an excellent profile on Arians and chronicled the winding road Arians took to a head coaching job in the NFL.

The part of the piece that will really resonate with Steelers fans is when Arians recalls getting a phone call from coach Mike Tomlin, not long after Pittsburgh had been bounced out of the playoffs by Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.

“I thought he was calling about a raise,” Arians told Keown. “Tells you what I know.”

After Tomlin informed Arians that his contract would not be renewed, the latter went along with the company line that Arians had decided to call it a coaching career. The Steelers eventually hired Todd Haley to take over for Arians.

When former Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano landed the head job in Indianapolis, it also resurrected Arians’ coaching career.

He joined Pagano’s staff as an offensive coordinator and served as the interim head coach when Pagano was getting treated for leukemia.

The job that Arians did that season in Indianapolis led to his hiring by the Arizona Cardinals, and he has been one of the NFL’s most successful head coach since 2013.

Keown has a terrific statistic in his story: The Steelers were 55-25 with Arians as the offensive coordinator and they are 19-19 with Haley.

That comparison does require a little context.

The Steelers generally had really good to great defenses when Arians was the offensive coordinator from 2007-11. The Steelers have fielded middling defenses since Haley joined he organization in 2012.

As much as some want to bash Haley, it would be revisionist to suggest that Arians was beloved by Steelers fans when he was calling the plays.

It is also worth remembering that the Steelers won their share of game from 2007-11 in spite of their offense though Arians often had to make do with a banged-up offensive line.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he respects that Bill Cowher and Hines Ward have jobs to do as NFL analysts, but he shrugged off criticism of their former team after a 31-10 loss in Cleveland.

“I don’t worry about that. That’s elevator music as far as I’m concerned,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m concerned about the things that are significant and that’s the men inside this organization right now and how they prepare and how they play. Love those guys, but those guys are on the outside looking in.”

Cowher, who coached the Steelers for 15 seasons before Tomlin succeeded him, said on CBS’ NFL Today on Sunday that Pittsburgh is “soft” on defense and too “finesse” on offense. Ward, the Steelers’ all-time leading receiver, said on NBC that “I look at their personnel; they can’t cover anybody in the secondary. Offensively, I thought I’d never say it, but the Steelers are a finesse offense right now. I don’t even know who these guys are.”

Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have endured criticism from a number of different fronts with the Steelers 3-3 following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

Tomlin said he will look at making some changes in personnel but that the Steelers will largely stay the course as far as what they are doing on offense and defense from a schematic standpoint.

The Steelers are fourth in the NFL in total offense (396.5 yards per game) but just 23rd in scoring (20.7 points per game) largely because they have the second-worst red-zone offense in the league.

“Right now it’s not sweeping or drastic changes as far as who and what we are schematically,” Tomlin said. “I will look at who we utilize and where in all three phases.”

Among those players who could see increased roles Monday night against the Houston Texans are cornerback Brice McCain and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.

Bryant has yet to dress for a game but the 6-4, 210-pounder has the size that could help the Steelers’ passing game when they get close to the end zone.

The Steelers have scored touchdowns just 36.8 percent of the time that they have been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.

“We’ve got to score when we put the ball in scoring position, and we haven’t done it consistently enough and we better fix it,” Tomlin said.

CLEVELAND -- Ben Roethlisberger beat the Cleveland Browns in 18 of his first 19 starts against them, including once while playing on only one good leg. He has so gleefully tormented the team that passed on drafting him in 2004 that what transpired Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium is proof something is very wrong with Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger completed just 21 of 42 passes in a 31-10 loss to the Browns and he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to one touchdown -- a late, meaningless one at that. The 11th-year veteran struggled with his accuracy so much, and in weather that was ideal for football, that Roethlisberger may have had trouble hitting Lake Erie even if he had been standing on its shores.

He was that bad in the loss that dropped the Steelers to 3-3, and he knew it.

“I hold myself to a higher standard and I’ve got to be better,” Roethlisberger said.

That is two games in a row Roethlisberger has not played well. That and the continued disconnect between the yards the Steelers are piling up and the meager numbers they are posting on scoreboards are sure to renew questions about the union between Roethlisberger and third-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Something is amiss with an offense that has managed just 20 points in the past two weeks, and the Roethlisberger-Haley dynamic is usually where disgruntled fans point first when the Steelers struggle.

The play calling has been curious with the Steelers becoming pass-happy when they were inside the Jaguars' 20-yard line last Sunday and then going to the other extreme against the Browns.

Haley has to take his share of blame for the offense's struggles but certainly not all of it.

A blown assignment up front on an early third-down run from the Browns' 3-yard line left LeGarrette Blount no chance to score, and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

On a third down from Cleveland's 17-yard line in the second quarter, Roethlisberger threw a pass that Markus Wheaton clearly was not expecting. The incompletion forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal attempt that holder Brad Wing botched.

The game turned on those two plays as the Steelers had been in command before the ill-fated field goal attempt. Yet the Steelers might not have had to attempt a field goal had Roethlisberger and Wheaton been in sync, something they weren’t all day.

Roethlisberger threw 11 passes Wheaton’s way and he caught only four of them.

“I think we had a good plan,” Roethlisberger said. “We came in with the right attitude and mindset. I didn’t play well enough. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated but we’ll stay together.”

Such solidarity following a bitter loss was the one place where all of the Steelers’ offensive players were actually in the same place -- at least publicly.

Roethlisberger took the blame for the loss. Wheaton said Roethlisberger covered for him in regard to the communication issues the two had against the Browns. Running back Le’Veon Bell said to point the finger at him for the offense’s struggles.

“I think I’m frustrated like we all are because we are capable of moving the ball and possessing the ball, but the points aren’t reflective of that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

When asked if the Steelers are going about playing offense the right way -- a thinly veiled reference to whether Haley is the right coach to lead it -- Tomlin said, “I am sure of it but we are not executing. We’ve got to look at all areas.”

They have to start by looking at how to get Roethlisberger to play better.

The Steelers' plan of remaining competitive while they rebuild a once fearsome defense hinges on Roethlisberger keeping them in games because he is a top-tier quarterback.

He has looked like anything but a franchise quarterback the past two weeks.