PITTSBURGH -- No matter how much the Pittsburgh Steelers have tried to separate themselves from Le'Veon Bell, his absence was deeply felt Sunday night.
The Steelers needed an equalizer to settle down the offense when things went awry in the second half of their 26-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. What they got was a near 5-1 ratio of pass to run in their most physical rivalry.
The Steelers always knew they would miss Bell, who's still sitting out with an unsigned franchise tag as the team explores trading him. Otherwise, teammates wouldn't have responded so fiercely to his absence in Week 1. They knew he changed the dynamic.
As a counter, players and coaches sold a bold new attack behind James Conner, who runs hard and is a better pass-catcher than advertised.
Still, the transition from All-Pro to first-year starter manifested in Conner's 19 yards on nine carries Sunday. The Steelers were outmatched regardless of the running back in a Week 2 loss to Kansas City, but this week felt different as Baltimore ran 30 times for 96 yards.
Several Steelers pointed to the Ravens' quick 14-0 lead as a reason to abandon the run.
"The run game, as long as we're efficient, we're getting yards here or there," guard Ramon Foster said. "You get behind the chains a little bit and you have to throw it. That's not an issue to be frantic about. We're a team that always finds a way."
Foster is saying the right things, but getting "yards here or there" doesn't sound like the tone-setting offense the Steelers line wants to be.
Bell was usually good enough to keep the running game respectable in the face of deficits. The Steelers trailed Jacksonville 21-0 in last year's playoffs and Bell finished with 67 rushing yards on 16 attempts.
At the least, the Steelers offense with Bell would have run more against Baltimore because of his experience and track record.
New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner pounded Conner for 135 yards on 31 carries in Week 1, but since then Conner has 32 rushes for 97 yards, 36 of which came on two late-game rushes Week 3 in Tampa Bay.
This isn't said to disparage Conner, who's a fine player, but to highlight the drop that was bound to hit without a top-10 star.
Coach Mike Tomlin made clear weeks ago he's done with the Bell questions, but he's open to another -- why didn't the Steelers push the pace on the ground?
"That's a good question," Tomlin said. "We weren't able to find enough traction tonight. We didn't run it a lot; and I'd imagine the more we run, the more traction we'll find. But again, as the game unfolded, they were controlling it by possession and winning possession downs, and we weren't. So it tends to look like that, when the game is being controlled in that way."
Ben Roethlisberger can get as hot as any quarterback, and when he's rolling, 60 passing attempts can get the job done.
But right now the 1-2-1 Steelers aren't running or stopping the run consistently, which is a recipe for a January vacation.
Whether or not Bell is back by then.