Steelers struggling without Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers have proven they can win without their
stars.

Troy Polamalu. James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley. Antonio Brown.
The list of familiar faces forced to watch the Steelers play from
the sidelines this season is lengthy and littered with Pro Bowl
selections and Super Bowl rings.

Yet Pittsburgh has survived by living up to ”the standard is
the standard” ethos set forth by coach Mike Tomlin. No matter the
position, player or circumstances, the Steelers always seem to find
a way to get by.

Until now anyway.

The two-game losing streak Pittsburgh (6-5) rides into Sunday’s
game at Baltimore has done more than push the Steelers to the
fringe of the AFC North race, it’s shown that on a team of
interchangeable parts there remains an indispensable one.

Ben Roethlisberger.

Since the team’s franchise quarterback went down with a sprained
shoulder and dislocated rib in the third quarter against Kansas
City on Nov. 12, the offense that hummed so efficiently with
Roethlisberger’s No. 7 taking the snaps has turned into the
Keystone Kops.

Interceptions. Fumbles. Penalties. The flaws Roethlisberger’s
right arm so capably covered up during arguably the best start of
his career have been exposed in the team’s first losing skid in
three years.

”It’s disgusting, and it’s not something that we’re all about
here,” said Brown, who expects to return after missing three games
with an ankle injury. ”Hopefully, I can help bring back some order
to this team.”

Something that’s been in short supply since Roethlisberger
walked into the tunnel on that cold, wet Monday night against the
Chiefs, his right shoulder throbbing and a dislocated rib coming
dangerously close to his aorta.

In the 35 drives the Steelers have played without
Roethlisberger, backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have
produced two touchdowns, three field goals, 17 punts, 11 turnovers
and two season-damaging defeats.

Still, the 37-year-old Batch – who will likely make his second
straight start on Sunday in Baltimore – insists Pittsburgh hasn’t
become too reliant on Roethlisberger.

”I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Batch said. ”There’s a lot
of guys on this team that are capable of making plays. But for
whatever reason we haven’t been able to get into the end zone. And
I think right now we’re going to figure out a way to do that and I
don’t think anybody in this locker room thinks another way.”

Holding onto the ball would help. Heck, holding onto the ball
would likely make the difference.

The Steelers went 4-2 in games without Roethlisberger from
2007-11, including three victories to start the 2010 season while
the quarterback served a four-game suspension for violating the
league’s personal conduct policy.

Pittsburgh turned it over 10 times in those six games. Or one
less than the Steelers have given it away in their last eight
quarters.

”Whatever reason, Ben in, Ben out, we still ain’t been
executing well,” said Leftwich, who fractured two ribs in a 13-10
loss to the Ravens two weeks ago. ”We’ve got to fix that and fix
our turnover problem and we’ll be OK.”

Roethlisberger returned to practice on Wednesday in a limited
capacity, though it appears extremely unlikely he’ll be ready to
face Baltimore, meaning the Steelers will again rely on Batch to
revive their season.

The 15-year veteran, who turns 38 next week, isn’t too old to
believe in redemption. He’s won games in the past while subbing for
Roethlisberger. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it again if
Roethlisberger is relegated to wearing a sweat suit and ear buds on
Sunday.

”We have to figure out what we need to do,” Batch said. ”In
order for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to start
winning.”

Tomlin stressed Pittsburgh’s offensive issues go far beyond
quarterback play and he’s taken aggressive steps to get his team’s
attention, benching starting running back Rashard Mendenhall in
favor of Jonathan Dwyer and dropping Mike Wallace to co-starting
status with Emmanuel Sanders.

The move came as a surprise to Wallace, who didn’t know about
the possible demotion until the coach announced it during his usual
Tuesday press conference. Wallace, a Pro Bowler last season, had
just one catch against the Browns and had a pass bounce off his
hands in the third quarter, leading to an interception.

”I know I’m not making enough plays,” Wallace said.

Having a quarterback who lacks Roethlisberger’s big arm doesn’t
help matters. Batch tried to hit the speedy Wallace deep downfield
in Cleveland only to see the underthrown pass flutter into the arms
of Browns defensive back Joe Haden.

It was the type of miscue Batch avoided during his previous
relief appearances, ones that must be eliminated if the Steelers
want to win in Baltimore for just the third time in a decade.

Having some semblance of a running game would help. Tomlin
awarded Jonathan Dwyer the starting spot based on his production
and the fumbling problems that have bedeviled Mendenhall and Isaac
Redman.

It’s a role Dwyer insists he’s ready to embrace

”You have to produce and go out there and make plays for your
team,” he said. ”They’re depending on you to be the established
guy to get the run going. I’ve done it before (25 carries a game),
so it’s nothing new to me. So, whatever they need me to do, I’ll do
it.”

And the Steelers will almost certainly have to do it without
Roethlisberger. Yes, they’re not the same team without their best
player. So what?

”Not having Ben out there hurts us,” Mendenhall said. ”We
haven’t been executing the way we need to to win games and that’s
evident. We just need to execute better.”

The sooner, the better.

NOTES: Polamalu practiced for the first time since Oct. 5.
Polamalu has played just five quarters all season due to a strained
right calf … The team moved center Maurkice Pouncey to left guard
on Wednesday while starting left guard Willie Colon rested his
aching knee. If Colon can’t play against the Ravens, Pouncey could
start at guard with Doug Legursky moving to center … WR Jerricho
Cotchery (ribs) was limited in practice while Colon, Leftwich,
Woodley (ankle), RT Mike Adams (ankle) and LT Max Starks (rest) did
not practice.

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