PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers have proven they can win without their stars.
Troy Polamalu. James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley. Antonio Brown. The list of familiar faces forced to watch the Steelers play from the sidelines this season is lengthy and littered with Pro Bowl selections and Super Bowl rings.
Yet Pittsburgh has survived by living up to “the standard is the standard” ethos set forth by coach Mike Tomlin. No matter the position, player or circumstances, the Steelers always seem to find a way to get by.
Until now anyway.
The two-game losing streak Pittsburgh (6-5) rides into Sunday’s game at Baltimore has done more than push the Steelers to the fringe of the AFC North race, it’s shown that on a team of interchangeable parts there remains an indispensable one.
Since the team’s franchise quarterback went down with a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib in the third quarter against Kansas City on Nov. 12, the offense that hummed so efficiently with Roethlisberger’s No. 7 taking the snaps has turned into the Keystone Kops.
Interceptions. Fumbles. Penalties. The flaws Roethlisberger’s right arm so capably covered up during arguably the best start of his career have been exposed in the team’s first losing skid in three years.
“It’s disgusting, and it’s not something that we’re all about here,” said Brown, who expects to return after missing three games with an ankle injury. “Hopefully, I can help bring back some order to this team.”
Something that’s been in short supply since Roethlisberger walked into the tunnel on that cold, wet Monday night against the Chiefs, his right shoulder throbbing and a dislocated rib coming dangerously close to his aorta.
In the 35 drives the Steelers have played without Roethlisberger, backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch have produced two touchdowns, three field goals, 17 punts, 11 turnovers and two season-damaging defeats.
Still, the 37-year-old Batch — who will likely make his second straight start on Sunday in Baltimore — insists Pittsburgh hasn’t become too reliant on Roethlisberger.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Batch said. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that are capable of making plays. But for whatever reason we haven’t been able to get into the end zone. And I think right now we’re going to figure out a way to do that and I don’t think anybody in this locker room thinks another way.”
Holding onto the ball would help. Heck, holding onto the ball would likely make the difference.
The Steelers went 4-2 in games without Roethlisberger from 2007-11, including three victories to start the 2010 season while the quarterback served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Pittsburgh turned it over 10 times in those six games. Or one less than the Steelers have given it away in their last eight quarters.
“Whatever reason, Ben in, Ben out, we still ain’t been executing well,” said Leftwich, who fractured two ribs in a 13-10 loss to the Ravens two weeks ago. “We’ve got to fix that and fix our turnover problem and we’ll be OK.”
Roethlisberger returned to practice on Wednesday in a limited capacity, though it appears extremely unlikely he’ll be ready to face Baltimore, meaning the Steelers will again rely on Batch to revive their season.
The 15-year veteran, who turns 38 next week, isn’t too old to believe in redemption. He’s won games in the past while subbing for Roethlisberger. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it again if Roethlisberger is relegated to wearing a sweat suit and ear buds on Sunday.
“We have to figure out what we need to do,” Batch said. “In order for us to get to where we want to get to, we have to start winning.”
Tomlin stressed Pittsburgh’s offensive issues go far beyond quarterback play and he’s taken aggressive steps to get his team’s attention, benching starting running back Rashard Mendenhall in favor of Jonathan Dwyer and dropping Mike Wallace to co-starting status with Emmanuel Sanders.
The move came as a surprise to Wallace, who didn’t know about the possible demotion until the coach announced it during his usual Tuesday press conference. Wallace, a Pro Bowler last season, had just one catch against the Browns and had a pass bounce off his hands in the third quarter, leading to an interception.
“I know I’m not making enough plays,” Wallace said.
Having a quarterback who lacks Roethlisberger’s big arm doesn’t help matters. Batch tried to hit the speedy Wallace deep downfield in Cleveland only to see the underthrown pass flutter into the arms of Browns defensive back Joe Haden.
It was the type of miscue Batch avoided during his previous relief appearances, ones that must be eliminated if the Steelers want to win in Baltimore for just the third time in a decade.
Having some semblance of a running game would help. Tomlin awarded Jonathan Dwyer the starting spot based on his production and the fumbling problems that have bedeviled Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.
It’s a role Dwyer insists he’s ready to embrace
“You have to produce and go out there and make plays for your team,” he said. “They’re depending on you to be the established guy to get the run going. I’ve done it before (25 carries a game), so it’s nothing new to me. So, whatever they need me to do, I’ll do it.”
And the Steelers will almost certainly have to do it without Roethlisberger. Yes, they’re not the same team without their best player. So what?
“Not having Ben out there hurts us,” Mendenhall said. “We haven’t been executing the way we need to to win games and that’s evident. We just need to execute better.”
The sooner, the better.