PITTSBURGH - The Steelers' new offense was on display again Sunday night, and it's becoming evident on what one of the main focal points will be.
Get the ball to Antonio Brown.
With former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians watching from the visitors' sideline, Brown, the third-year wide receiver, put on a dazzling show in the first quarter of the Steelers' 26-24 preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown takes a screen pass for a touchdown in the first half.
Brown's big plays were the bright spots from the first-team offense, which is using the exhibition season to get accustomed to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense. Otherwise, it was a bit of a yawner for Ben Roethlisberger and company, which is usually the case in the preseason when teams try not to unveil all of their playbook.
Brown got the offense untracked with an 18-yard reception on a third-and-11 play after left tackle Marcus Gilbert was called for a false start penalty on the Steelers' second offensive series.
Three plays later, on third-and-4, he turned a routine short pass into an electrifying 57-yard touchdown jaunt that flashed with Brown's customary head bobs and weaves and was punctuated with a flip into the end zone that would have impressed Gabby Douglas.
"We were in the huddle, and I had to call the play,'' Roethlisberger said. "I had a two-way option, and I gave it to [Brown]. I thought he'd get the first down, and he ended up getting a little more.''
Brown, who credited his blockers and Roethlisberger for the touchdown, is showing why the Steelers agreed to pay out more than $42 million, including $8.5 million in guaranteed money, for a five-year extension for the Pro Bowler in late July while top receiver Mike Wallace was beginning his holdout. All indications point to Wallace returning to the Steelers before the regular-season begins, but it appears that Brown figures more in the team's future plans.
Pittsburgh will need a big season from Brown, who finished last season with 69 catches for 1,108 yards and two touchdown receptions. Expect those numbers to rise this year, especially the touchdowns, if he stays healthy.
Another Pro Bowl season from Brown would help begin the post-Hines Ward era and take some of the pressure off of the Steelers' young offensive line and an uncertain ground attack.
The Steelers are still trying to figure out who will be their main running threat this season. Rashard Mendenhall is apparently ahead of schedule in recovering from a torn ligament in his knee but won't be ready for at least the first month of the season, and Isaac Redman has been nursing groin and hip injuries that kept him from playing against the Colts.
Jonathan Dwyer took his turn in the backfield Sunday and didn't disappoint with 43 yards on eights carries, including a 23-yard run in the second quarter. Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey are getting long looks, too.
Roethlisberger played into the second quarter, but he didn't look sharp - he played like a quarterback still learning a new offense. The Steelers opened the game with five straight running plays and ran the ball on seven of their first eight plays.
"We're not playing as good as we could or should,'' Roethlisberger said, "but we're making progress.''
Roethlisberger forced an early pass to Brown and was intercepted by Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea. When the second quarter began, Roethlisberger tried to connect with Brown again on two throws, even though he was covered, and they were incompletions.
Even Charlie Batch threw a low pass to Brown on third down on his first series as quarterback. It's becoming somewhat of a pattern - when in doubt, turn to Brown.
"We are going in the right direction, but we're still not where we want to be,'' Brown said. "We have the preseason to iron out the kinks and get better.''
Haley's offense might not be in top form yet and could very well struggle during September, but one play seems to ready for the season - get the ball to Antonio Brown and watch him go.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.