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Ben Roethlisberger key to Steelers solving offense's problems

CLEVELAND -- Ben Roethlisberger beat the Cleveland Browns in 18 of his first 19 starts against them, including once while playing on only one good leg. He has so gleefully tormented the team that passed on drafting him in 2004 that what transpired Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium is proof something is very wrong with Roethlisberger.

Roethlisberger completed just 21 of 42 passes in a 31-10 loss to the Browns and he led the Pittsburgh Steelers to one touchdown -- a late, meaningless one at that. The 11th-year veteran struggled with his accuracy so much, and in weather that was ideal for football, that Roethlisberger may have had trouble hitting Lake Erie even if he had been standing on its shores.

He was that bad in the loss that dropped the Steelers to 3-3, and he knew it.

“I hold myself to a higher standard and I’ve got to be better,” Roethlisberger said.

That is two games in a row Roethlisberger has not played well. That and the continued disconnect between the yards the Steelers are piling up and the meager numbers they are posting on scoreboards are sure to renew questions about the union between Roethlisberger and third-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

Something is amiss with an offense that has managed just 20 points in the past two weeks, and the Roethlisberger-Haley dynamic is usually where disgruntled fans point first when the Steelers struggle.

The play calling has been curious with the Steelers becoming pass-happy when they were inside the Jaguars' 20-yard line last Sunday and then going to the other extreme against the Browns.

Haley has to take his share of blame for the offense's struggles but certainly not all of it.

A blown assignment up front on an early third-down run from the Browns' 3-yard line left LeGarrette Blount no chance to score, and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal.

On a third down from Cleveland's 17-yard line in the second quarter, Roethlisberger threw a pass that Markus Wheaton clearly was not expecting. The incompletion forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal attempt that holder Brad Wing botched.

The game turned on those two plays as the Steelers had been in command before the ill-fated field goal attempt. Yet the Steelers might not have had to attempt a field goal had Roethlisberger and Wheaton been in sync, something they weren’t all day.

Roethlisberger threw 11 passes Wheaton’s way and he caught only four of them.

“I think we had a good plan,” Roethlisberger said. “We came in with the right attitude and mindset. I didn’t play well enough. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated but we’ll stay together.”

Such solidarity following a bitter loss was the one place where all of the Steelers’ offensive players were actually in the same place -- at least publicly.

Roethlisberger took the blame for the loss. Wheaton said Roethlisberger covered for him in regard to the communication issues the two had against the Browns. Running back Le’Veon Bell said to point the finger at him for the offense’s struggles.

“I think I’m frustrated like we all are because we are capable of moving the ball and possessing the ball, but the points aren’t reflective of that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

When asked if the Steelers are going about playing offense the right way -- a thinly veiled reference to whether Haley is the right coach to lead it -- Tomlin said, “I am sure of it but we are not executing. We’ve got to look at all areas.”

They have to start by looking at how to get Roethlisberger to play better.

The Steelers' plan of remaining competitive while they rebuild a once fearsome defense hinges on Roethlisberger keeping them in games because he is a top-tier quarterback.

He has looked like anything but a franchise quarterback the past two weeks.