PITTSBURGH - The future of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season might not rely so much on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's right arm as it will on his hands.
When Roethlisberger spends more time turning around and giving the ball to a running back, the Steelers (3-6) win. When they fall behind early or rely too heavily on Roethlisberger to keep them in the game, they lose.
Pittsburgh is averaging 117 yards rushing in its three victories and 69 in its six defeats. For the Steelers, it's not how you finish so much as how you start. Pittsburgh is averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the first half of the games it has won and 3.2 yards per carry in the opening half in the games it has not.
Rookie Le’Veon Bell will be the workhorse going forward for the Steelers.
As gifted as Roethlisberger is, when the defense knows what's coming he's not nearly as effective. His rating in Pittsburgh's six losses is 83.9 even though he's averaging 317 yards passing in those games. He's averaging only 209 yards passing in Pittsburgh's wins, including 204 yards in blustery conditions last Sunday.
While it might not make for the prettiest stat line, after an 0-4 start Roethlisberger will take it.
"Being balanced is always the key for us," he said. "We said coming into (the Buffalo) game that we were going to run early and run it a lot."
A whole lot, technically.
Pittsburgh gashed the Bills for 99 yards on 19 carries on its way to taking a 10-3 halftime lead. During a 13-play, 58-yard drive spanning the first and second quarters, the Steelers ran it on eight consecutive snaps, and did it in a variety of ways with a variety of players.
Four different Steelers - rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, veteran Felix Jones, a rejuvenated Jonathan Dwyer and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders - ended up with the ball in their hands. One play Jones was sprinting through a hole for nine yards. The next Dwyer was bulling up the middle to convert a third-and-1. The next Bell lined up in the wildcat formation and flipped the ball to Sanders, who was running in motion.
Roethlisberger, who was split out wide, ran behind Sanders and was prepared to a handoff from Sanders when the receiver faked the pitch and sprinted 25 yards. Four straight runs by Bell followed and the Steelers ended up kicking a field goal to tie the game at 3.
It was the kind of persistence with the run the Steelers have shown only sporadically this season. Part of the problem is effectiveness. Pittsburgh is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in the first half of its losses, compared to 4.5 yards per carry in its wins.
"We want to be physical," Bell said. "We like to get in there and move the pile. When we do, we think we can be a good team."
Something the Steelers have only looked like when they've been able to control the clock and keep its sometimes erratic defense off the field. Pittsburgh held the ball for 35 minutes against the Bills in part to its ability to convert third downs on the ground. The Steelers went 8 of 17 on third down last Sunday, four of the conversions coming with Roethlisberger giving it to a running back and letting the line go to work.
Still, coach Mike Tomlin isn't ready to say the inconsistency that had has dogged the running game for years is gone. While Tomlin allowed he's seen some "positives" he's not exactly brimming with confidence heading into Sunday's matchup with NFC North leading Detroit (6-3). The Lions are eighth in the NFL in fewest yards rushing allowed, giving up 100 yards per game.
Finding room against the Bills is one thing. Doing it against the likes of Detroit defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley is something else.
"These guys trample the run on the way to the pass," Tomlin said. "They get up the field. They create disruption and negativity in the run game."
The Steelers could head to the weekend with their fifth different offensive line combination in 10 games. Guard Ramon Foster will be limited with a right ankle sprain suffered against the Bills. Center Fernando Velasco, meanwhile, is limited with a right knee contusion.
Barring a setback, Velasco should play on Sunday. If Foster can't go, Pittsburgh might have to get creative to fill his spot, though journeyman Guy Whimper could fill in as he did for guard David DeCastro in New England two weeks ago.
The shuffling on the line is unintended. The rotation in the backfield, however, is deliberate. Though there's little doubt Bell will be the workhorse going forward, Jones and Dwyer have proven to be an effective change of pace. Dwyer, who led the team in rushing last season only to be cut at the end of training camp, has thrived in his second act. He ran for 30 yards on his one carry versus the Patriots and used his bulk to turn three third-and-shorts into first downs against Buffalo.
When asked about Dwyer's renewed focus Tuesday, Tomlin joked "I imagine unemployment would do that."
Dwyer has job security at the moment, and a team that has gone 3-2 since a winless September is beginning to build momentum, as fickle as it seems.