PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger’s ribs are bruised but not broken.
The Pittsburgh Steelers believe the same could be said about their wildly uneven season.
Roethlisberger believes he’ll play on Sunday when New England visits Heinz Field, one of the few certainties for a team in search of answers thanks to a three-game losing streak, the latest setback a baffling 24-21 defeat in Oakland that included Roethlisberger missing most of the second half after taking a shot to the ribs, another late meltdown by the defense and the latest botched kick by Chris Boswell.
“Whenever talking about consistent failures in recent weeks, it’s usually a multitude of things,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “It’s all of the above. We’re open to change, going to make discussions regarding change.”
Starting, potentially, at placekicker.
Boswell's woes: Boswell was a Pro Bowler in 2017 — a season in which he drilled three game-winning field goals — and signed a contract extension in August that runs through 2022. Yet he has struggled with consistency this season.
When his left foot gave way on the final snap in Oakland, turning his potentially game-tying 40-yard attempt into a line drive that smacked into the sea of players in front of him, it marked his 11th missed kick this season (six field goals, five extra points). He missed just 13 combined kicks from 2015-17.
Tomlin said the team plans “to explore options that gives us the very best chances of the ball going through the upright this weekend.” That includes holding tryouts to give others a look, though Tomlin admitted there isn’t exactly much to choose from in mid-December.
“We’re cognizant of what’s available,” Tomlin said. “The prudent approach is to include Chris in those options.”
Big Ben saga: There are no such questions at quarterback despite an odd sequence in Oakland that led to Roethlisberger standing on the sideline in the fourth quarter while backup Josh Dobbs tried to build on a four-point lead.
The issue? Apparently an ancient X-ray machine at the Coliseum that offered no clarity on the extent of the rib injury Roethlisberger sustained while being driven into the ground late in the second quarter.
Roethlisberger, team physician James Bradley and general manager Kevin Colbert spent all of halftime trying to get a clean X-ray but none surfaced.
“We never had a full understanding of what the injury was,” Tomlin said. “The medical staff treated (Roethlisberger) to the best of our abilities.”
Treatment that included “medicating” the 36-year-old quarterback while also keeping him out of the game as a precaution.
Tomlin likened the approach to the one the team took during a wild-card game in Cincinnati three years ago in which Roethlisberger hurt his right (throwing) shoulder at the end of the third quarter.
In that game, Roethlisberger stayed off the field until the Bengals rallied to take the lead in the final minutes. Roethlisberger came on and – with more than a little help from Cincinnati – helped the Steelers rally to the victory .
It nearly happened again in Oakland. Roethlisberger completed all six of his passes on Pittsburgh’s penultimate drive, the last a 1-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster that put Pittsburgh in front 21-17.
“We would only re-insert him if we felt it was necessary,” Tomlin said. “We appreciate what he was able to do … obviously it didn’t end in the way that we would like.”
Roethlisberger said during his weekly radio appearance Tuesday he expects to face the Patriots (9-4).
Pain management key: Tomlin indicated pain management will be the biggest concern. Roethlisberger rarely practices on Wednesdays and there’s a chance he could be given an additional day off.
Tomlin said the team did not file a complaint with the league about the X-ray machine in Oakland and declined to use it as an excuse for any of the decision-making on the sideline or the play on the field. He’s well aware Pittsburgh’s issues extend far beyond Boswell, sloppy turf or outdated medical equipment.
The defense has allowed second-half leads to get away each of the past three weeks. The Raiders, who came in tied with San Francisco for the worst record in the league, went the length of the field twice in the final 10 minutes, just as the Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field did the week prior while storming back from a 16-point deficit to pull out a 33-30 victory.
While Tomlin cautioned the defensive tweaks he’s considering might not be “noticeable to the naked eye” he’s aware the Steelers – their AFC North lead over Baltimore down to a half-game – are in serious need of a kick-start.
“We’re not going to hope and wish,” Tomlin said. “We’re not going to go through our process in the manner of which we have and hope that the outcome changes.”
Notes: RB James Conner (ankle) could return against New England. Conner missed his first game of the season last week after getting hurt late against the Chargers. … RT Marcus Gilbert (knee) could return to practice. Gilbert hasn’t played since mid-October.