<
>

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers' run game even more crucial with Big Ben's woes

play
Steelers' offense one-dimensional (1:40)

Damien Woody turns to the play of Le'Veon Bell as part of the reason why the Steelers' offense isn't running on all cylinders, putting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. (1:40)

PITTSBURGH -- These numbers seem unavoidable against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Steelers' five-turnover dismantling against the Jacksonville Jaguars:

The Steelers are 10-0 since 2013 when Le'Veon Bell gets 25 or more carries.

Bell's 3.1 yards per carry Sunday was hardly a solution in the 30-9 loss to the Jaguars, but the Steelers handed the ball off to Bell 15 times against (at least on paper) the worst rushing defense in the NFL.

They shouldn't make the same mistake this Sunday in Kansas City, the spot where Bell broke off 170 yards on 30 carries in last year's playoffs.

Pound the ball with Bell. Throw to Antonio Brown fairly often. Figure out the supporting cast as you go.

In 2014, when Ben Roethlisberger was one of the league's hottest quarterbacks, airing it out was a sound strategy. Those Steelers could throw on anybody. The seemed galaxies away from those heady days in the aftermath of Roethlisberger's five-interception performance on 33-of-55 passing.

The deficit forced the Steelers to throw more, but it's almost as if an offense waiting to experience a passing-game explosion like old times grabbed for glory Sunday, to spectacular failure.

Not that Roethlisberger's play won't improve. He could find his groove again. There's too long a track record. But the Bell-heavy plan late last year rode the Steelers to seven straight wins, and in their biggest offensive productions -- 26 points against the Minnesota Vikings and at the Baltimore Ravens -- Bell got a combined 62 carries.

There's a reason they ride Bell when they do. This isn't the same offense as 2014, despite some of the same parts. The dynamics of the passing game have shifted unless they can rediscover them. The Steelers still have untapped playmaking in Martavis Bryant, who can't seem to find a rhythm with Roethlisberger.

Is a ball-control offense the recipe moving forward?

"You'll have to ask coach [offensive coordinator Todd] Haley that at his press conference on Thursday," guard Ramon Foster said. "I don't know the answer to that one. We have to define our identity soon, because we're coming to our midway point of the season. We can't play around anymore."

Foster later added, as an offensive linemen, "We always want to run."

To be sure, going 0-for-3 in the red zone could have produced more volume for Bell. But the Steelers still had a 9-6 lead after three field goals, at which point Bell had a tidy 12 rushes for 45 yards and Roethlisberger had thrown 31 times.

Those final 24 throws -- four of which were intercepted -- came in the last 22 minutes as the Steelers scrambled.

Cornerback Joe Haden can relay the unassuming defensive message that "we've just got to look at ourselves in the mirror ... got to come back and respond," but the Steelers defense is doing enough to win. It has given up 40 points in two losses -- six of which came in overtime against the Chicago Bears. Quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Mike Glennon combined for less than 200 yards in those games.

Extract Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette's late-game-breaking 90-yard score and the bruising back produced a reasonable 3.37 yards per carry (91 on 27 rushes).

On defense, Pittsburgh hasn't given up 20 points in regulation all year, which lines up perfectly with how Roethlisberger, at 35, seemed intent on playing before Sunday.

Roethlisberger was pleased he hadn't thrown an interception in training camp. The Steelers knew entering the season if they didn't give away the ball, they would win most games. That plan would have worked Sunday.

Instead, the Steelers are left figuring out what just happened, and how to fix it.

"Honestly, I have no clue, man," Bryant said when asked what's missing from a few years ago. "We've just got to get better, period."

Added guard David DeCastro: "If we could fix it, it would make our jobs a lot easier."

It might be easier than he thinks. When right tackle Marcus Gilbert returns from injury as early as this week, run the ball to the right behind Gilbert and DeCastro.