When Le’Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards and totaled 186 overall Sunday, it left quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as the only member of the Steelers’ offensive Big 3 to not have a breakout game this season.
Antonio Brown had 11 catches and 182 yards in the season opener and 10 more catches for 110 yards and a touchdown in Week 3.
Bell had his awakening Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens with a performance that looked right out of the 2016 second-half playbook.
Roethlisberger? He totaled a season-low 216 yards passing against the Ravens and compiled a 79.3 rating that also was his lowest number through four weeks. In addition, his 6.8 yards per attempt and 11.0 yards per completion for the season are the worst figures of his 14-year career.
Is it the sign of a declining quarterback at age 35, one who is struggling to complete the deep pass? Or is what transpired against the Ravens part of the new normal for the Steelers in which Bell is the focal point on offense and Roethlisberger serves as a complementary piece?
Veteran guard Ramon Foster wasn’t embracing the notion that the Steelers reclaimed a run-first identity against the Ravens — if only because it would look like he was short-changing his quarterback.
“Who’s to say?” Foster said. “Ben might come out and throw for 500 next week.”
That’s highly unlikely. Roethlisberger has gone 10 consecutive games without passing for even 300 yards.
For the first time since 2008, he has opened a season with four consecutive games without a 300-yard performance.
For the Steelers, however, that’s not a bad thing. Consider they won nine of those 10 games in which Roethlisberger failed to crack 300. The most recent time he reached that mark? The 35-31 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last November when he had 408 passing yards.
After that loss is when the Steelers turned to Bell to be the offensive catalyst, and this strategy helped produce a seven-game winning streak that enabled the Steelers to win the AFC North.
This year, the Steelers have carved a 3-1 record to take first place in the division.
Again, Roethlisberger hasn’t played at a Pro Bowl level. After accepting blame for producing only 17 points in the overtime loss to the Chicago Bears, Roethlisberger completed 18 of 30 passes for 216 yards and one touchdown against the Ravens. His yardage total has decreased each week since the season opener when he passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns.
“I’m pretty hard on myself,” Roethlisberger said Sunday. “I didn’t make all the plays I could. We took what they gave us, and we knew they were going to try to take away big plays.”
Roethlisberger cringed when asked if the showing against the Ravens is the way the offense is supposed to look.
“We’ll take a win here however we can get it,” Roethlisberger said after his first victory in Baltimore as a starter since 2010. “I still feel personally that I didn’t make all of the plays.”
Roethlisberger lamented a few passes he didn’t complete in the second half, including a deep ball to Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter while the Steelers were trying to build on a 19-9 lead.
“I don’t really ever think I can overthrow him,” Roethlisberger said. “Unfortunately, I did because that’s a dagger. We finally got the look we wanted. We finally got him to run by somebody. When I let it go, I thought it was good, but I guess I had too much adrenaline.
“Those are the plays I get upset about. Those are the plays I expect to make and we need to make at that moment.”
One week earlier, Roethlisberger’s deep pass on the first play of the game barely landed beyond Bryant’s outstretched fingers.
Adding Bryant to an offense that already had three star players was supposed to elevate the Steelers to one of the NFL’s highest-scoring teams. Yet, they rank No. 21 with an average of 322 yards, and they are No. 18 in scoring at 22.5 points.
“We’re still winning, so it’s nothing for us to worry about,” Bryant said. “It’s a long season. You can’t get discouraged. We’re still in it, and we’re not even playing our best. That’s the bright side. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We know the way we’re playing now isn’t going to cut it toward the end of the year, so we have to continue to get better.”
The next test is against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the NFL’s stingiest pass defense. The Jaguars have allowed just 147 passing yards per game, which means they could stack defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop Bell and dare Roethlisberger to pass.
“Jacksonville is going to come in and try to shut that down,” Foster said, referring to Bell. “Hopefully, Ben has an All-Star day.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.