Steelers’ run game grinds to halt

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
3:30
AM ET
CINCINNATI -- Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger delivered a pointed message in a locker room where the quiet reflected the Steelers' first 0-2 start since 2002: Look in the mirror for answers before looking anywhere else.

Roethlisberger actually told his teammates to point thumbs instead of fingers. And nothing could have been more apropos, since the Steelers' offense was pretty much all thumbs again, this time on national TV in a 20-10 loss to the Bengals.

Roethlisberger had trouble with his accuracy, his wideouts had trouble getting open and his offensive coordinator called a reverse for a 31-year old possession receiver.

The Steelers' ground game, meanwhile, again was missing in action. And forget for a second that an offensive line that has supposedly been fortified through recent drafts didn't create a whole lot of running room. Steelers running backs managed just 13 yards after contact on 16 carries, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Felix Jones
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsFelix Jones and the Steelers' running game struggled in Cincinnati, gaining just 44 yards with an average of 2.8 yards per carry.
Following another abysmal showing by the offense, at least one member of the offensive line pointed a finger, although right tackle Marcus Gilbert wasn't pointing at his teammates.

Gilbert took issue with a tripping call at a critical juncture of the game. It came early in the second half after Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown in stride with a third-down pass that eventually covered 33 yards.

Gilbert took out a Bengals defender when he went tumbling to the turf at Paul Brown Stadium, but he said there was no intent. Therefore, Gilbert said, there should not have been a penalty called.

"That's a shame," Gilbert said. "They were getting tired, frustrated. They were walking around and we thought we had them. It was an awful call."

Whether the call stunk or not, Gilbert's claim of how drastically the penalty changed the complexion of the game is legitimate.

The Steelers had tied the game at the end of the first half, with Roethlisberger looking like his old self in directing a five-play, 65-yard touchdown drive.

The defense did its job after halftime, forcing a three-and-out. Soon after a Bengals punt, Brown made a couple of nifty moves after hauling in Roethlisberger's third-and-10 pass near midfield.

He got run out of bounds at the Bengals' 30-yard line, but the Gilbert penalty brought it all the way back to the Steelers' 27. The Steelers' offense was scarcely heard from again the rest of the night.

"That's a big play," Roethlisberger said after throwing for 251 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "We've got all the momentum in the world going there and next thing you know you're backed up."

The thing is, the Steelers owned the Bengals for years in Cincinnati -- and were a consistent Super Bowl contender -- because they always found a way to overcome bad breaks like that.

That hasn't been the case going back to last season, when the Steelers lost five games by three points, including one to the Bengals that knocked them out of playoff contention.

Whether the Steelers have lost their mojo isn't the issue as much as their talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

A unit that has been the worst in the NFL this side of Jacksonville will get some much-needed reinforcements when tight end Heath Miller and running back Le'Veon Bell return from their respective injuries.

But for those who think Bell will be a cure-all for the Steelers' sickly run game, consider that his next carry will be his first in the NFL.

It is one thing to run all over Iowa and quite another to run against AFC North teams.

Until Bell does the latter -- and the second-round pick will be given every opportunity to do so once his mid-foot sprain has fully healed -- it can't be assumed he will save the running game.

It might be up to the line to do that, and lift the offense as a whole.

Not too long ago, some Steeler fans all but accused general manager Kevin Colbert of negligence for not making the offensive line more of a priority in the draft.

Since 2010, the Steelers have used two first-round picks and two second-round picks on offensive linemen. And yet they still haven't had anything close to a dominant offensive line during coach Mike Tomlin's seven-year tenure.

The Steelers caught a bad break when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (first-round pick in 2010) went down with a season-ending knee injury. But now more than ever, they need a serious return on the investment they have made in their offensive line.

And they need it sooner rather than later.

When asked how the Steelers can win up front more frequently moving forward, right guard and 2012 first-round pick David DeCastro said, "Keep grinding and don't feel sorry for yourselves and just get better. [Pointing fingers] is the worst thing you can do."

That is one thing the Steelers haven't done, and it starts with Tomlin.

"I believe honestly that the answers are still in that room," Tomlin said.

At least one person does.

Scott Brown

ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter

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