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Steelers offense primed for breakout year

No matter how many touchdowns he scores, Super Bowl rings he wins or carefully choreographed end zone celebrations the "Dancing With the Stars" champion executes to perfection, Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward knows his team's identity will never change.

For proof, the 14-year veteran points to the portrait-lined wall of the Steelers' offices.

"All you see is the defensive guys, offensive linemen, running backs," Ward said. "There's no room for wideouts. There's only two quarterbacks in this franchise that you can name and that's Ben (Roethlisberger) and Terry Bradshaw. It is what it is here."

For decades it's been defense. It's been some burly running back — from Franco Harris to Barry Foster to Jerome Bettis — blowing through linebackers. It's been blue collar.

And maybe, just maybe, it's about to change.

The defending AFC champions open the season on Sunday against rival Baltimore with perhaps the most dynamic offense during Ward's lengthy career. The 29-year-old Roethlisberger is just entering the prime of a career. Third-year wide receiver Mike Wallace is coming off a breakout season and running back Rashard Mendenhall thinks he can improve on the 13 touchdowns he scored a year ago.

Throw in speedster Antonio Brown's eye-opening preseason (three touchdowns while averaging 25.6 yards per catch) plus the addition of former New York Jet Jerricho Cotchery and Roethlisberger understands why there's a buzz surrounding a unit that ranked a modest 12th in points and 14th in yards a year ago.

Still, asked if this is arguably the most talent he's ever had at his disposal and he's typically diplomatic.

"I guess whenever you say something like that, you have to put a little asterisk by it, because you've got to say 'arguably,'" Roethlisberger said. "But they're a good group and they are very young, so they still make their fair share of mistakes. But, they're learning and growing and they want to be great."

And they want be great now.

Wallace predicted on the opening day of training camp he wanted to put together the first 2,000-yard season by a receiver in league history. He's not backing down from the goal, but thinks it may be harder to come by only because there's only one ball to go around and too many options at Roethlisberger's disposal.

Then again, that's probably a good thing.

"It might make it easier because I might have a lot of one-on-one coverage," Wallace said.

Highly unlikely for a player that averaged 21.0 yards a catch in 2010. Wallace will almost certainly have plenty of company as he roams through the Baltimore secondary on Sunday.

Even if he does, Roethlisberger has such confidence in Wallace he might take a chance anyway, the product of a relationship that's flourished.

"When I was a rookie, I don't think he was like my homeboy. But now, we're close," Wallace said. "Now, I can tell him whatever I want and he's not going to take it a certain way."

Call it part of Roethlisberger's continuing maturation. Entering his eighth year, Roethlisberger has such a command of the system, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians believes his quarterback could call an entire game with ease.

"He's got total control of it," Arians said.

He showed flashes of it two years ago while throwing for 4,328 yards operating out of a no huddle. Last season, working behind a patchwork offensive line, Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

Now, the line is healthy and the players at the skill positions have never been deeper. Roethlisberger's teammates think he could be sitting on a career year and finally join the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the conversation of the best at his position.

"He's elite," Cotchery said. "I believe he's an elite quarterback and I'm not just speaking from a wins perspective. I think he can throw the ball with the best of them and I've seen it first hand."

Cotchery, who could miss the opener with a hamstring injury, remembers standing helplessly on the sidelines last January while Roethlisberger clinched Pittsburgh's eighth trip to the Super Bowl. The Jets had closed within 24-19 with 3:06 to play when the Steelers took over. Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller for a 14-yard gain then ended it with a toss on Antonio Brown on third-and-6 from the New York 40.

"That last third down, you're like, 'Man we haven't stopped them on third down all game'," Cotchery said. "So you see Ben roll out to the right and you see Antonio Brown flash and you're like, 'That's it'."

If the offense stays healthy, Wallace thinks they won't have to grit out victories at the end. Pittsburgh hasn't led the NFL in total offense since 1979 when Bradshaw and fellow Hall-of-Famers Harris, John Stallworth and Lynn Swann were lighting up the scoreboard at Three Rivers Stadium.

"I think they most definitely sleep on us," Wallace said. "Really and truly, I think we're going to have the best offense in the league. They won't be sleeping on us for long. We're going to wake 'em up."

It's the kind of youthful exuberance that would translate into selfishness in other locker rooms. Not in Pittsburgh. Ward is there to keep his teammates in check. He loves their confidence, but knows when to temper it with doses of reality.

When Brown scored a 29-yard touchdown on a nifty double-move in the preseason against Philadelphia, Ward made sure to remind the youngster he ran the wrong route on the play.

Do it in the preseason and nobody notices. Do it in the playoffs and Ward knows you're tempting fate. He chalked it up to a teaching moment. One of many that could have the Steelers putting up the kind of numbers normally reserved for the Green Bays of the world.

"The sky's the limit," Ward said. "We could be as good as anybody. It's just a matter of just going out there and executing and if we do that, we'll be fine."