Roethlisberger OK with progress despite losses

Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers have never been better. The

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback is on pace to smash most of the

team single-season passing records he already owns.

Last week he broke Terry Bradshaw’s franchise mark for career

touchdown passes. Sunday night against Cincinnati he has a chance

to go over 4,000 yards for the third time. A recent commitment to

the no-huddle offense has given him a newfound freedom that has

quieted critics who wondered if he was cerebral enough to call his

own plays.

Oh, and his wife is expecting the couple’s second child in the

spring.

And yet, in some ways Roethlisberger has never looked or sounded

more frustrated, at least when talking about his job.

The Steelers (5-8) are all but eliminated from the playoffs with

three long weeks to go, and Roethlisberger has spent the last month

on the defensive. If he’s not denying a report he may ask for a

trade in the offseason, he’s defending his relationship with

offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Though Roethlisberger insists he’s still focused on avoiding the

first losing season of his football career – college, high school

and Pop Warner included – he also offered an olive branch of sorts

on Wednesday that could resonate into 2014 and beyond.

Amid the mounting losses and the almost weekly fending off of

rumors and innuendo, Roethlisberger and the offense he controls

have found a rhythm.

”I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Roethlisberger

said. ”I think we’re getting better every week. Obviously, the

ultimate goal is to win the game, but offensively our goal is to

get better every week and we’ve done that.”

The Steelers have gone over 20 points in six straight games, the

team’s longest streak since 2009. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell

is becoming the reliable and versatile option the team envisioned

when it took him in the second round of the draft. Wide receiver

Antonio Brown is challenging Hines Ward’s club record for

receptions in one season. Jerricho Cotchery already has nine

touchdown catches, one less than the veteran wide receiver entire

total from 2008-12.

All this behind an offensive line has featured six different

starting combinations in 13 weeks.

”I think we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that can make that

next step,” Roethlisberger said. ”I think the cohesiveness that

we have on offense is a good thing and hopefully it can translate

into these last couple games and then into the offseason.”

Roethlisberger would prefer not to talk too much about the

future, particularly what could happen this spring as he and the

team figure out what to do about his contract status. He has two

years remaining on his current deal, though Pittsburgh often

reworks quarterback contracts two years out. With a base salary of

$12.1 million, he’s a bargain for a two-time Super Bowl winner.

Despite speculation he may look for an out, Roethlisberger

insists he is committed to Pittsburgh. There’s little doubt he

remains dedicated in meeting rooms, where the competitive guy who

has spent the last decade putting together a resume that is Hall of

Fame worthy remains as intense as ever.

”He’s been razor sharp making sure young guys understood what’s

at stake, making sure every man to a man knows their job, making

sure every o-lineman comes in new or old understands protection and

what needs to be done,” Brown said.

The Steelers hardly resemble the team Cincinnati smothered in a

20-10 victory back in September. Bell was out and the line, playing

its first game without injured All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey was

a mess.

Not so much at the moment. Roethlisberger, who was sacked 36

times in the first nine weeks, has been dropped just four times in

the last four games. A defensive stop here or there and the

Steelers are in the mix instead of playing out the string.

The pain of missing out is palpable throughout the locker room,

no more so than on the face of the franchise, the one who is

simultaneously having the best and worst season of his life.

”I’m not going to look back yet,” Roethlisberger said. ”We’re

still looking forward … Maybe in the offseason we’ll look back

and scratch our head.”

NOTES: DE Brett Keisel (foot), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), DE

Ziggy Hood (ankle), DT Steve McLendon (ankle) and S Troy Polamalu

(shoulder) did not practice Wednesday. …. T Kelvin Beachum

(knee), Cotchery (shoulder) and G David DeCastro (foot) were

limited.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org .