PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers can’t explain it exactly.
They’re not much into excuses either.
Yet there’s no denying the offense that runs so smoothly at Heinz Field looks decidedly less potent when forced to hop a plane, sleep in a hotel and dress in the visitor’s locker room. Save for a season-opening romp in Washington more than two months ago, the Steelers (4-5) have been more Pinto than Porsche on the road.
The team that expects to average 30 points a game this season has mustered just 32 combined over 12 largely comatose quarters in Philadelphia, Miami and Baltimore. While a reprieve would seem to await in Cleveland (0-10) on Sunday, Pittsburgh is taking nothing for granted. After the way it sleepwalked against the Ravens in a 21-14 loss two weeks ago, it can’t afford to. Pittsburgh didn’t cross midfield until well into the second half and didn’t score into what amounted to garbage time.
“It was miserable,” guard David DeCastro said. “I’ve never been a part of something like that like, ‘What are we gonna do?’ It’s not like we were getting manhandled where you’re ‘Alright, they’re better than us.’ It was frustrating.”
While offensive coordinator Todd Haley pointed to Ben Roethlisberger’s rustiness coming back from left knee surgery as part of the problem in Baltimore — leading to a limited playbook designed to protect the franchise quarterback — as part of the issue, it wasn’t the only one. The Steelers couldn’t run either, mustering just 36 yards on 18 carries, creating a snowball effect that led to numerous third-and-long situations and ultimately, a season-high 10 punts by Jordan Berry.
Pittsburgh is converting just 31 percent of its third downs during its three-game road slide, compared to a 42 percent conversion rate at home, where the Steelers also average 28.8 points. The disparity is jarring.
“You know, we go on the road and it’s obviously a lot louder,” Roethlisberger said. “And you have to use the silent count and that means ‘head bob,’ gun or under center. So just some kind of timing could be off a little bit … We pride ourselves in years past here being a great road football team. And we need to do that. We’re going to have to start this week.”
That’s typically not a problem for Roethlisberger in Cleveland, where he’s lost just twice in 11 career starts. Overall, though, the gap between his effectiveness at home and on the road is widening. During Haley’s four-plus seasons calling the plays, Roethlisberger is 15-18 with 45 touchdowns and 31 interceptions away from Heinz Field. Compare that to a 24-9 mark with 82 touchdowns and 23 picks when he wakes up on game day a short drive from the Terrible Towel twirling masses.
There are numerous other variables at play, including a defense that’s not exactly lights out anymore and one forced to go the rest of the season without defensive end Cam Heyward , who is out with a pectoral injury.
That puts the onus on the offense to carry even more of the load. It’s one the Steelers have looked perfectly capable of bearing at times, though not nearly enough during a four-game losing streak that’s sucked all the momentum out of a 4-1 start.
“It’s not anything the opposing team is doing or the crowd. We just haven’t performed well,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. “Dropping balls, penalties, whatever it may be. I just think we’ve got to get better.”
Haley often likes to turn to the no-huddle when the offense is in need of a jump start, though opportunities have been limited at best recently. While Pittsburgh did score 14 points in the fourth quarter against the Ravens, DeCastro allows it was basically garbage time with Baltimore up three touchdowns.
“You’ve got to mix it up if something’s not working,” DeCastro said. “But I thought we had a good plan. It wasn’t getting the job done maybe … switch it up sooner and give us a chance.”
Maybe, but Pittsburgh’s defensive limitations mean the offense probably needs to control the ball instead of pushing the pace. With four of their next five on the road, the Steelers know they need to score — fast, slow or in between — if they want to chase down the Ravens in the so-so AFC North.
“We have a very high standard coming into this year,” Haley said. “At times we’ve been close to what we’re trying to get, other times we haven’t. We need to eliminate the (bad) habits.”
NOTES: C Maurkice Pouncey (finger), WR Sammie Coates (finger), TE Ladarius Green (finger), TE Xavier Grimble (quadriceps) practiced Thursday. … S Jordan Dangerfield (groin) was limited. … WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) was out.