PITTSBURGH — Todd Haley came up with a goal of averaging 30 points a game a year ago.
And if the always tinkering, ever aggressive Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator is being honest, he’s kind of surprised his group came as close as it did in 2015.
No Ben Roethlisberger for four games. No Le’Veon Bell for 10. No Martavis Bryant for five. No Maurkice Pouncey for an entire season. And still the Steelers managed to put up 26 points every week on their way to a second straight playoff berth.
“When you look back at the tape, even with the hands we were dealt, whether it was injuries, suspensions, whatever it was, to me it would have been a very attainable goal for us last year,” Haley said.
So why change it even with some of the same issues that plagued Pittsburgh a year ago — Bell suspended for three games, Bryant suspended until next spring, tight end Ladarius Green out indefinitely with ankle issues — popping up again ahead of Monday night’s opener in Washington?
“As a coach, you are trying to set the bar high but at an area you can feel like you can achieve and attain,” Haley said. “I just think that’s a number if we are able to get it done, it will give us the best chance to win week in and week out.”
The preseason provided a brief but perhaps telling glimpse of what’s to come. Roethlisberger, Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown played all of two possessions together during an exhibition game.
Both drives in Week 3 featured Roethlisberger working almost exclusively out of the no-huddle and finished with the Steelers in the end zone.
Giving Roethlisberger the latitude to call what he wants when he wants — akin to Peyton Manning’s prime in Indianapolis — is a sign of just how the relationship between quarterback and coordinator has evolved over the past four years.
The trust level between the two is at an all-time high thanks in part to Roethlisberger’s embracing of Haley’s system that tasks the 34-year-old with getting the ball out of his hands (and hopefully keeping him healthy) to a skill group that’s as talented as any in the league when it’s on the field at the same time.
It’s a collection that will include heavy doses of DeAngelo Williams until Bell returns in Week 4. It’s a role he filled remarkably well in 2015 while running for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns at 32, a time when most of his peers are eyeing retirement if they’re still in the league at all. Williams looks as fresh as ever.
“DeAngelo does not lack confidence by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you want,” Roethlisberger said. “You want a guy who is going to step up and be ready to go, try not to miss a beat. Last year, he showed what he can do, and I think we’ll see the same thing.”
Williams even caught a career-best 40 receptions and remained one of the best backs in the league in pass protection. He’s hardly concerned about living up to Haley’s mandate. Last he checked, the goal was to score as often as possible.
“There’s two types of pressure, you either apply it or you feel it,” Williams said. “We’re applying 30 point a game rule because it’s what our offensive coordinator and head coach want us to do.”
Pittsburgh’s test will be an unfamiliar one. The Redskins spent the offseason upgrading a defense that finished 28th in yards allowed in 2015, though Washington somehow won the lackluster NFC East anyway.
All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman comes over from Carolina and former Pittsburgh defensive end Ziggy Hood will try to revitalize his career after bouncing from Jacksonville to Chicago to the nation’s capital since leaving the Steelers after the 2013 season.
The division remains wide open and slowing down Pittsburgh — a club Washington hasn’t beaten since its most recent Super Bowl-winning season a quarter century ago — would be an ambitious start.
Yet it may come down to the Steelers stopping themselves. For all the yards and the points they put up in 2015, Pittsburgh also turned it over 28 times, the 10th-most in the league. That number includes 16 interceptions by Roethlisberger, his most since 2006.
“We just gave the ball away too many times last year,” Haley said. “Our defense did a great job of getting it, so we stayed in the plus, but for us to be up over one-plus giveaway per game, that’s too much for a group that wants to be great.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.