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MIRZA ZUKIC: Red-zone offense takes off

by on August 17, 2014 1:59 AM

PITTSBURGH — When Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks of “splash plays,” he probably envisions plays like Ben Roethlisberger’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on Saturday night.

It was the highlight of an efficient night for the Steelers’ first-team offense in a 19-16 preseason win over the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field. Surely, Brown’s “splash play” will garner the most attention on the highlight reels, but it was the Steelers’ second drive that was more telling of the progress the offense is making.

The Steelers’ first-team offense produced a touchdown on its only red-zone possession, and that’s more significant than it sounds.

Over the past two seasons, one of the Steelers’ biggest deficiencies was their red-zone offense. They got inside the opponents’ 20-yard line plenty often, all right. But they too often relied on Shaun Suisham’s foot to finish many of those drives. Too often, they walked away with three points instead of seven.

That’s what made their second scoring drive Saturday all the more significant.

Set up by rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier’s interception of EJ Manuel, Pittsburgh took over at the Buffalo 37-yard line less than 10 minutes into the game and already leading 6-3. The Steelers moved the ball with ease, setting up a first-and-10 at the Buffalo 15.

Then, Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass on first down, and Markus Wheaton lost a yard on a second-down reception. Facing third-and-11 at the Bills’ 16, the Steelers were looking at another field goal, as has often been the case the past two seasons and even last week in the preseason loss to the New York Giants.

But the Steelers composed themselves and delivered. Roethlisberger threw a perfect pass in the back left corner of the end zone, and Wheaton managed to get both feet inbounds after catching it. Touchdown.

These are the possessions that will decide games during the regular season. The Steelers beat Buffalo by three points, but who knows how it might have turned out if they got a field goal on that drive instead of a touchdown?

It certainly illustrates the importance of an offense that converts red-zone possessions at a high rate.

As long as Roethlisberger is running the offense, you can be sure the Steelers are capable of making splash plays. What isn’t so clear is if they can they capitalize in the red zone more often.

Saturday night was a good step forward.

Mirza Zukic is a sports writer that primarily covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and is the Gazette's track and field beat writer.
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