Kovacevic: Ben frustrated, and who can blame him?
CINCINNATI — The Steelers aren't very good.
They might not be good at all.
They might well be on the way to a swoon that takes years of smarter coaching and infinitely smarter drafting decisions to undo.
For right now, though, they're 0-2 after a 20-10 meltdown Monday night against the Bengals, an opponent they once owned, at Paul Brown Stadium, a facility they once leased annually.
They're 0-2 and can't pass anywhere near the new NFL norm.
They're 0-2 and can't run the ball at all.
They're 0-2 and still can't take the ball away on defense or come close to an opposing quarterback.
They're 0-2 with a chance to go 0-3 and 0-4 and 0-and-who-knows-because-it-seems-like-forever-since-they've-won-even-if-you-include-preseason.
Oh, it's bleak, all right.
When Mike Tomlin starts saying stuff like, “There's some misery that comes from the position we're in now. We won't like it, but we will wear it” … yeah, it's as bleak as a January in Jacksonville.
So why is that, out of all this, I mostly came away wondering how frustrated Ben Roethlisberger must be?
Don't tell me you didn't.
They're 0-2 with Ben for the first time, you know.
“Very frustrating,” the quarterback replied to my question on that front. “We've got a long way to go. We're going to … let this sink in for a day or two, then get ready for Chicago.”
Roethlisberger acquitted himself superbly, actually, better off the field than on it: He was 20 of 37 for 251 yards with a touchdown, an interception on a pass off Jerricho Cotchery's fingertips and two sacks. The numbers don't look all awful, but he wasn't at all sharp.
As he freely acknowledged: “The quarterback needs to play better. And he will.”
In that context, it doesn't feel right to make excuses for Roethlisberger. His team needed the very best from its best player in this game, and that wasn't there.
At the same time …
It was impossible not to have noticed that his wide receivers, notably Emmanuel Sanders once again, were off on their routes. A couple of those undoubtedly came from bad balls by Ben, but it was clear from his reaction to at least a couple of those — upbraiding Brown on the sideline after one — that something else was awry.
Anything to it?
“If you ask me right now, my knee-jerk reaction is to give them credit,” Roethlisberger said of the Bengals. “I'd need to see the film, but there were some things that happened. There were times I know the receivers said they couldn't see the ball in the lights, kind of fluky things.”
Lost the ball in the lights?
Is that akin to the dog eating the homework?
Brown was more blunt: “We've got to get better.”
Brown made his mark with a sizzling punt return and six catches for 57 yards, but three other balls sent his way landed — regardless of fault — nowhere near him. Sanders had five catches for 78 yards, but that accounted for only half of the 10 times he was targeted. On one of those, he was thrown off by the slightest of chips by the Cincinnati secondary. Cotchery's ratio was worst of all, with three catches out of nine targets.
I'll repeat: Roethlisberger misfired on a few. But there's no way he was responsible for them all.
The receivers need to be better.
Then again, the Steelers just might need to use better receivers.
Nothing was more ridiculous on this night from the visitors' standpoint than seeing Markus Wheaton, the richly promising third-rounder, either watching from the sideline — sometimes along with Jarvis Jones, which is equally ridiculous but a separate matter — or gunning on special teams.
Never mind the obvious benefit to having Wheaton on the field rather than, say, spare tight end David Paulson, who in this game demonstrated not only that he can't block but also that he can't catch and that he can't hold onto the ball once he does catch it.
No, how about going with a four-wide set?
Or supplanting Cotchery, who looked every minute of his 31 years?
Did you catch Todd Haley's hilarious end-around play to Cotchery, the team's slowest receiver?
I asked Tomlin if Wheaton might be a bigger part of the offense going forward, and his reply was swift: “He will be.”
Better late than never.
Back to Roethlisberger's frustration: After Paulson's fumble, which the on-field officials incorrectly ruled happened after he was down, Roethlisberger rushed to the line to do the intelligent thing and get off a play. Only the sideline had other ideas and made substitutions that delayed the process.
Oops. Marvin Lewis threw the red flag, and the Bengals got the ball.
“That's always a collective thing,” Tomlin tried to explain. “Honestly, when you have those types of plays, particularly on the road, they aren't going to allow you to get up there and snap it quick.”
I'm betting most of the 64,585 on hand would disagree, given how slowly the Cincinnati defense was moving. Lewis threw the flag at the last second.
Roethlisberger described his thought process: “OK, we've got to hurry up and call one of the hurry-up plays. That's what we were trying to do.”
Last point of frustration, though I'm guessing there were more: The one time the Steelers' offense looked fluid, not coincidentally, resulted in their lone touchdown. Also, in what probably was no coincidence, it came with Roethlisberger working his beloved no-huddle, and it was a thing of beauty, all passing, 5 for 5 for 65 yards and a sweet end-zone fade to Derek Moye — a rookie on the field! — to finish.
Asked Ben about that, too: “Yeah, we were in a two-minute mode, so I was calling all the plays there to try to get down the field. The guys all did a great job of getting into windows and making plays after the catch.”
And would he like to do more no-huddle?
“We talk about it, Coach Tomlin, Coach Haley and I, and if we think it's in the best interest of the offense, we'll get into it.”
Might be a good idea to let the QB have that podium.