PITTSBURGH -- When the first glimpse of Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer and James Conner made the Twitter rounds in May, there was a collective exhale throughout Pittsburgh.
It was only a few seconds of carefully selected clips, but it was enough to bring relief to everyone who followed the Pittsburgh Steelers' frustrating 2019 season.
Still, there was some apprehension. A 38-year-old quarterback coming off a significant elbow repair isn't a sure thing. But in the first half of the season, Roethlisberger allayed fears. He wasn't always the same backyard gunslinger, favoring short passes and jet sweeps to deep bombs, but the offense worked.
Through the first 10 games, Roethlisberger had 2,534 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. At the time, 24 touchdowns was fourth-best in the league. And the five interceptions were fewer interceptions than 22 starting quarterbacks had.
Ben was back, and so, too, was the Steelers' offense.
In the past few weeks, though, those exhales of relief have turned to sharp inhales and winces.
Beginning with the close win against the shorthanded Baltimore Ravens in a thrice-rescheduled game on Dec. 2, the Steelers have scored 20 points or fewer in three consecutive games for the first time with Roethlisberger as the starting quarterback since 2013. They haven't scored 20 points or fewer in four straight games with Roethlisberger since 2004.
The things that worked earlier in the season -- the quick releases, the underneath throws and the occasional long ball -- weren't having the same effect.
For most games this season, Roethlisberger has been on the mark. Just 13% of his throws have been off-target this season, ninth-best among qualified quarterbacks. But after back-to-back weeks of throwing at least 94% of passes on-target, Roethlisberger was significantly off his mark against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 13. He was off-target on 19% of attempts, his second-highest mark this season.
"We need to look in the mirror, and it starts with me," Roethlisberger said after the loss to the Bills. "I need to play better football because the ball is in my hands every single play. When it's in my hands, I need to make the best decision. Right now, I'm not playing good enough football to win."
Part of it is the natural flow of the season. Put an offense on tape long enough and defenses will eventually find ways to exploit its weaknesses. Part of it are things outside of Roethlisberger's control: Drops by receivers and COVID-19 taking away parts of the run game. And yes, part of it is Roethlisberger's fault -- the underthrown passes, the poor decisions leading to ill-timed interceptions.
"Offensively, we are not very good," Roethlisberger said. "Right now, we are not playing good football, and that starts with me.
"This is a team that has a lot of resilience and that is resilient and understands what it takes to win football games and understands what time of year it is and that the way we are playing right now is unacceptable."
But one thing is clear: The solution to fix the Steelers' offense is not less Roethlisberger.
"I would shy away from wanting to take too much out of Ben's hands," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said last week. "He is the most experienced and, quite honestly, our best football player. He has a lot of insight into all levels of the game. I think we've got to do a better job of being more consistent and efficient in our runs. We've looked at certain play action and some things to potentially create more chunks down the field, as well."
Taking the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands won't help, but spreading it around a little more for balanced attack could go a long way to getting the offense out of a rut. In the past three weeks, the Steelers have dropped back to pass a league-high 74% of the time and rushed by design on 26% of plays. Their season average is a bit better -- dropping back to pass 64.7% of the time, good for 10th-highest in the NFL.
The Steelers' run game has dwindled to 53.4 rushing yards per game and 2.9 yards per rush in the past seven games, a significant drop after they rushed for at least 90 yards in each of the first six games of the season. Coach Mike Tomlin attributes some of that to the crush of three games in 12 days.
"We are several weeks into a focus there," Tomlin said of fixing the run game. "We will continue to work. We haven't necessarily seen the fruit of that work yet. Some of that can be traced to some of the short weeks we've had. We acknowledge that. That's why we are excited about working this week and continuing with our emphasis there in an effort to get that product to look the way we need it to look and round out our offensive attack and allow it to be more fluid and productive."
At first, the drop-off in the run game was mitigated by the Steelers' passing attack, but recently, even that hasn't been reliable.
The Steelers lead the NFL in drops (33) and drop rate (6.3%). Almost half of those drops (14) have come in the past three weeks, and the drop rate for those games is a whopping 9.9%. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson, benched for drops in back-to-back series in the first quarter against the Bills, leads all players with 11 drops, while tight end Eric Ebron leads his position with six.
"If you are going to throw the football, you have to catch the football," Fichtner said. "That goes hand in hand. We talk about running the ball. Efficient runs are 4-plus [yards]. If we are going to throw short and have the opportunity to run long, the short aspect of that has to be caught for 4 [yards], and whatever we get after that is bonus. That's just kind of keeping you on schedule. I wouldn't say that you've caught on to it. It's just a matter of we need to make our plays."
The Steelers haven't been able to get anything going in the short passing game, and they're also not having success pushing the ball down the field.
The Steelers rank 28th in explosive plays, defined as plays of at least 10-yard runs or 20-yard passes, with 63 this season. But in the past three games, the Steelers have just nine explosive plays. Only the Bengals are worse in that span with six.
Fichtner, though, said that's not all Roethlisberger's fault.
"I would say that he is more than capable of throwing the ball down the yard and making plays," Fichtner said. "We have enough guys that can actually go up and make a play. I think we have probably done it less than most. Just those numbers alone might say that, and that might be an emphasis for us moving forward. I'm not afraid to throw it deep."
Roethlisberger and the Steelers have their best chance to right the ship against the Cincinnati Bengals (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). Not only have the Steelers won 11 straight against the Bengals, but they have nine straight wins on Monday Night Football. And, earlier this season, Roethlisberger torched the Bengals for four touchdowns and 333 passing yards in a 36-10 blowout in which Johnson had six catches for 116 yards and a score.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it was an easy fix," Tomlin said of his team's offense. "... Is it fixable? Certainly."