PITTSBURGH (AP) — Heath Miller paused for just a second to consider the question before breaking out into a small smile.
Yeah, it does seem good friend Ben Roethlisberger is still improving a dozen years into a tenure already better than most.
“I think it’s undeniably his team and his offense now,” Miller said. “I think the offense is tailored to his abilities.”
Ones that have been on display during the best start of his career. The 33-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback already has 720 yards passing through two weeks and was brilliant during last week’s 43-18 dismantling of San Francisco, ripping off big play after big play while throwing for three scores, including a touchdown and a two-point conversion to Miller.
“When we were younger we were more of a running team,” Miller said. “Now he’s our best player and the front office and coaching staff have tried to put players around him so that he can be who he is right now.”
And consider this: Roethlisberger put up those numbers without running back Le’Veon Bell, who caught 83 balls last season, and wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who is out two more weeks while serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Bell will be back in the lineup against St. Louis, giving Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley another versatile option to a group that looked plenty potent without the All-Pro.
“He runs routes like he’s running the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s really quick and hard to cover. He’s shifty and makes a lot of moves.”
So does Roethlisberger, though he’s no longer the player who seemed to enjoy the idea of holding on to the ball as the pass protection broke down around him, giving him a chance to produce order out of chaos.
Haley’s system gives Roethlisberger more freedom to call his own plays but that independence comes with a caveat: find a guy and get rid of it. When it works, as it did against the 49ers, the results can be breathtaking.
Pittsburgh scored six touchdowns on 52 plays, all on drives the Steelers worked exclusively out of the no-huddle hurry-up.
“When your quarterback is playing at such a high level, physically and mentally, that’s an edge that’s hard to duplicate, because the quarterback can get you in what the best possible play is,” Haley said. “He was doing it. He was making great decisions and then the necessary throws, and guys were making plays around him.”
It’s exactly what the Steelers had in mind when they signed Roethlisberger to a $100 million contract in March that will keep him in black and gold through the rest of the decade. He’s developed a deep rapport with All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown that might make them the best passing duo in the league and he’s worked diligently with the other skill position players.
Leading by 19 in the fourth quarter last Sunday, Roethlisberger took the snap and drifted to his right when the protection broke down. Markus Wheaton cut across the field and into Roethlisberger’s line of vision. Without truly setting his feet, Roethlisberger let fly a rainbow Wheaton chased down for a 48-yard gain. Two plays later, DeAngelo Williams scored for a third time and Pittsburgh was firmly in control.
St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher faced Roethlisberger regularly while coaching at Tennessee. The guy he’ll see standing in the shotgun on Sunday when Pittsburgh visits the Rams isn’t the same one who seemed to make it up as he went along a decade ago.
“His understanding, his anticipation, his ability to change things on the line of scrimmage, putting them in the best-case scenario on the line of scrimmage, he’s just matured,” Fisher said.
On the field and off. The married father of two is at a good place in his life. He and Haley have reached a level of understanding that makes whatever bumps they may have endured early in their relationship a distance memory.
The Rams and their active defensive front will provide a difficult test. Pittsburgh likely won’t start out in the no huddle, but if things bog down early, Haley won’t hesitate to turn to Roethlisberger and let him do his thing. That includes staying quiet on the headset.
“You don’t want to have him dealing with a distraction,” Haley said. “Like I said, when he’s playing mentally and physically like he was, let him go.”