Ben Roethlisberger never has played in an offense like this in his 11 seasons.
Maybe it’s because he never has had to.
Since Roethlisberger debuted in 2004, the Steelers haven’t passed for as many yards or generated as many total yards in a half-season as they are in 2014. With their defense performing at all-time lows for a Dick LeBeau unit, the Steelers were in need of every yard, first down and point to start 5-3 — a three-game improvement from last season.
The Steelers have thrown for 2,329 yards — or 1,014 yards more than at this point in 2005 — and totaled 3,346 yards, or 236 more than in any other Roethlisberger-led first half of a season.
Much of the production came during a 27-point first half against Cleveland, a three-minute, 24-point stretch against the Texans and a 51-point Sunday against the Colts. Still, it’s a big turnaround from less than a month ago, when the Steelers totaled only two touchdowns in nine quarters mostly against the Jaguars and Browns.
Roethlisberger never has played better, either, with a 522-yard passing game against Indianapolis that ranks among the best in NFL history, plus 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.
“Ben is one of the best, and I’m talking about one of the best all time,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday on a conference call.
As the Steelers enter the second half of their season, what’s turned around an offense that was held to 10 points or fewer in three of the first six games but now is developing into one of their all-time best?
First, their stars are producing. Antonio Brown is first in the NFL in receptions (60), Roethlisberger is second in passing yardage (2,380), and Le’Veon Bell is third in rushing yards (691).
Roethlisberger hasn’t had so much balance before, especially factoring in Bell’s 42 catches out of the backfield. The offense is No. 3 overall, No. 4 in passing and No. 9 in rushing.
“Ben’s cutting the ball loose at the right time. He’s putting it in the right location,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “He might be playing as well as he’s ever played.
“For the AFC North, which might be the best division in football right now, that might be something that somebody should really fear the second half of the season.”
The offense began taking off immediately after several changes were made two weeks ago: Rookie receiver Martavis Bryant was activated for the first time, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley began using his receivers in twin combinations.
The unproductive Justin Brown was benched, and Bryant-Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore-Markus Wheaton began playing as tandems depending on down and distance, defensive alignments and field position. The receivers stack on either side of the field to prevent press coverage.
“It works pretty well. It depends on what personnel and plays we want to run. As long as each guy wires on what he’s doing on his particular plays and groupings, we can keep rolling,” Roethlisberger said. “One group is a no-huddle specific group. Another group could be for blocking, big plays. They’re all interchangeable, which I think is valuable.”
Steelers receivers other than Brown had only seven catches for 68 yards in the 31-10 loss at Cleveland. Since then, they have 18 catches for 257 yards and five touchdowns, with Bryant scoring three times in an offense that is 7 of 9 in the red zone.
“We have five guys who are dressing and five guys who are playing,” Moore said. “Any time you can keep defenses off balance and not key in on specific guys, it’s going to be tougher for them to defend.”
Better protection has helped, too. Since he last was sacked more than six quarters ago, Roethlisberger is 51 of 65 for 617 yards and no interceptions.
Brown is the most consistently productive receiver in the league, with no fewer than five catches or 84 yards in any game. Bell averages 86 yards rushing and five-plus catches a game.
It’s all adding up, and the Steelers can only hope the second half resembles last season’s, when they were 6-2. But there’s also this: The Steelers’ least- productive half-seasons under Roethlisberger were 2005 and 2008, and they won the Super Bowl both seasons.