PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t think he and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley need to be best friends to co-exist.
The quarterback, however, also knows he can’t start calling Haley out when things don’t go as planned, no matter how bothered the Steelers captain may get by the playcalling
It’s why Roethlisberger apologized to Haley, coach Mike Tomlin and owner Art Rooney II after making pointed remarks about the direction of the offense following a 27-24 overtime loss to Dallas on Sunday.
“I let my frustrations jump out after a game, I don’t usually do that,” Roethlisberger said. “Usually, I keep it under control. I was just frustrated with myself and I’ll be better at that.”
Roethlisberger completed 24 of 40 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns against Dallas but also threw a critical interception on the second play of overtime that set up the game-winning field goal. Afterward he expressed disappointment in Haley’s decision to stay away from the “no-huddle” offense. And he wondered why Haley didn’t feature tight end Heath Miller, who had six receptions for 85 yards in the first half and just one catch for seven yards in the second.
Looking back, Roethlisberger – who took full responsibility for the loss – figures he probably should have just kept quiet.
“We do have a lot of talks behind closed doors about things, about plays, play calling,” he said. “If I’m doing something that’s not right on the field, we have talks about everything.”
Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday his franchise quarterback and Haley are on the same page. Roethlisberger agreed but allowed that doesn’t mean they’re on the same sentence.
“There are going to be times when you just don’t see eye-to-eye,” he said. “There are times when I don’t see eye-to-eye with Coach Tomlin. But that doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think.”
There have been similar issues in the past with former offensive coordinators Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians, disagreements that were overshadowed by winning.
That’s not happening this season. The Steelers (7-7) have dropped four of their last five and need to win their final two games against Cincinnati (8-6) and Cleveland (5-9) to reach the playoffs.
It’s not exactly the position Pittsburgh expected to be in after a four-game winning streak pushed them to 6-3. Yet things haven’t quite been the same since a 16-13 overtime win against Kansas City on Nov. 12. Roethlisberger went down with a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib that sidelined him for three weeks and he hasn’t been quite the same player in his return.
Roethlisberger was completing nearly 70 percent of his passes going into the game against the Chiefs. Over his last 2 games, his completion percentage has dipped to just 55 percent (55 of 100) as defenses have become more aggressive at pressing Pittsburgh’s fast but somewhat undersized wide receivers at the line of scrimmage hoping to upset Haley’s short-passing game.
While Roethlisberger’s yardage totals have been OK thanks to an uptick in throws down the field, the efficient rhythm the Steelers played with during the first half of the season has all but disappeared.
“I think maybe it started in Kansas City where they had a little bit of success, where they got in our face a little bit and disrupted the timing of our routes,” Miller said. “We’ve seen that in some form or variation since then.”
The Steelers will almost certainly see more of it on Sunday against Cincinnati’s physical secondary led by cornerbacks Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Nate Clements.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace says the key is simply winning more battles at the line of scrimmage, though a running game with a bit of a pulse and a defense that gave the offense short fields would help.
Though the Steelers are first in the NFL in yards allowed, they’re 27th in takeaways with 15. As a result, just seven of Pittsburgh’s 58 scoring drives this season have started on the other side of midfield. Opponents, meanwhile, have started 14 of 56 scoring drives in Steelers territory.
The lack of turnovers and splash plays on special teams have led to some pretty long fields for Roethlisberger and company, fields that have gotten even longer as the running game has halted.
Running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 122 yards in a 24-17 win at Cincinnati on Oct. 21. He has 122 yards combined in Pittsburgh’s last four games, three of which he served as the starter.
Dwyer is still listed as the starter and it appears unlikely the Steelers would turn to veteran Rashard Mendenhall, who returned to practice on Wednesday after serving a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
Mendenhall declined to talk about why he failed to show up at Heinz Field for a game against San Diego two weeks ago after the Steelers decided to make him inactive, though Roethlisberger isn’t quite ready to call Mendenhall’s tenure over.
“He’s a pretty darn good football player,” Roethlisberger said. “If he can help this team win football games, we’ll take it.”
And the Steelers insist they’re past the part of the season where style points matter. The offense is just 20th in the league in points scored (21.6) and is averaging 30 yards less per game than it was last year, leading the front office to not renew Arians’ contract and hire the sometimes combustible Haley instead.
The promised fireworks have not ensued, though even if things were going smoothly, Wallace says it’s not like the offense would suddenly start lighting up scoreboards anyway.
“We’ve never just won on a weekly basis, win by 30-40 points,” Wallace said. “We win by a touchdown or a field goal (and) just made the plays when they count. I think this year we haven’t been making as many critical plays when they count … but we’ve still got a shot.”