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Starkey: Big Ben speaks truth about offense

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Ben Roethlisberger seemed surprised when reporters crowded his locker Friday, seeking word on his heavily taped right ankle.

Roethlisberger had practiced without issue. He didn't think the ankle was a big deal. Early in a two-minute drill with his inquisitors, he addressed a much-bigger deal: The Steelers' chronic inability to roll up lofty point totals.

As you might have noticed, dominant defense doesn't live here anymore. Any reasonable person would tell you it is the offense's turn to carry this franchise. Roethlisberger knows that. I'm just not convinced he believes Todd Haley's offense is designed to get there.

Asked if a running game would enhance the team's ability to hold leads, Roethlisberger said, “We just need to score points, however we can do it.”

Pressed, he offered the same response.

Things got more interesting when the crowd dispersed. I asked Roethlisberger if the offense has much room for “expansion.” As in more big plays.

“Haley's offense is not a big-play offense,” he said. “It's kind of a dink-and-dunk offense.”

Hmmm. That was the first time I'd heard Roethlisberger use the d-and-d phrase. When others had, he'd brushed it aside.

Our next exchange was more eye-opening.

Me: “Is there room for more quick strikes?”

Ben: “We did that last week (82-yard pass to Mike Wallace).”

Me: “Right, but you never went back to it.”

Ben: “There's a guy calling the plays. That's on him.”

That's a quote sure to be repeated, but I can tell you Roethlisberger did not utter it with any venom. And he quickly elaborated. Or backtracked. I'm not sure which.

“Sometimes, we'll call something long, and it's just not there,” he said. “For us, the big thing is that when we get into the red zone, we don't get complicated. We need to finish drives.”

Seems to me the two big changes under Haley are intimately related: shorter throws, cleaner quarterback. That's nice, but if your primary goal is to keep your quarterback safe, allow me to refer to John Tortorella's motto the year the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

“Safe is death.”

This season doesn't deserve to die. Not with defenses all over the mediocre AFC — notably those in Cincinnati and Baltimore — just waiting to be exploited.

Houston was the closest thing to an elite AFC defense. That was before they lost their best player (Brian Cushing) and got exposed in a nationally televised vivisection performed by Dr. Aaron Rodgers.

One way or another, the Steelers have to score more. Starting in Cincinnati. My sense is that removing Ben's shackles would be a start. But maybe it's finding a run game. Or maybe the rinky-dink method will bore the Bengals to death.

Did you know that, since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Steelers have cracked the 30-point barrier seven times?

For context, the Mark Sanchez-led Jets have done it 10 times.

The bugaboos of the Bruce Arians offense — which I thought was ready to explode before Roethlisberger's injury last season — remain unfixed: The Steelers still don't score enough (17th in the league), convert in the red zone (18th in touchdown percentage) or run with consistency (32nd in pertinent categories).

True, they lead the NFL in third-down conversion rate at 51.9 percent. But that wasn't a problem. They finished fifth last season, despite Roethlisberger being gimpy or absent for the last quarter of it.

The Steelers hoard the ball, too. But they were top five in time of possession every year under Arians (I apologize for citing these inconvenient facts).

Coach Mike Tomlin never fully explained the idea behind changing coordinators. I assumed that in addition to reducing quarterback hits, it was to finish games with point totals higher than, say, 19, 17 and 23.

So what's the excuse now?

Injuries along the line?

Please. Teams win Super Bowls with low picks and undrafted players littering their lines.

The Steelers possess the rarest of commodities: a Hall of Fame quarterback in his prime. They have provided him with a multitude of weapons. It really is time to score points.

However they can do it.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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