Sluggish Steelers offense not pointing fingers

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Le’Veon Bell chose his words like the Pro Bowl running back often chooses which hole to run through.

Carefully. Very carefully.

Asked if he had any advice for Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley on how to get the ball in the end zone more often for a unit that’s done little to live up to its own sky-high expectations, Bell faked one way and went another.

“I know what ya’ll want me to say,” Bell said. “Ya’ll want me to say, ‘Get me the ball.’ Look, I understand. I just want to go out and get the ‘W.’”

So do the other luminaries on Pittsburgh’s $92 million offense. At the moment, it’s simply not happening for the Steelers (3-2), who play at unbeaten Kansas City (5-0) on Sunday trying to find something resembling consistency and cohesion.

Both have been in short supply during an uneven start for a team that began training camp talking about being special but instead has looked decidedly ordinary, and occasionally ornery.

One week wide receiver Antonio Brown is flipping water coolers because Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t find him deep down the sideline.

The next Roethlisberger is throwing five picks, Bell is hinting the team needs to run it more , and Martavis Bryant is more decoy than deep threat.

To a man, the Steelers understand they have an embarrassment of riches on offense. Those riches, however, also have egos.

“Everyone wants the ball, that’s what got people to this level is their desire,” Roethlisberger said before later adding “I’m not really worried about guys complaining about wanting the ball. We have a lot of guys that can make plays for us and we just need to make them.”

Haley, who must come up with a plan that generates points while also placating the highest-paid wide receiver and highest-paid running back in the league, downplayed the idea there aren’t enough balls to go around.

“We got an unselfish group, really,” Haley said. “I’ve said that a number of times. You’re going to see emotional reactions all the time in this game. We’ve got a group that wants to win and that’s what we need to do.”

Scoring more would help. The Steelers are tied for 19th in scoring (19.8 points per game) and don’t rank in the top 10 in any major statistical offensive category.

The group that not so long ago wanted to average 30 points a week has reached that number twice in its past 15 games. The Steelers are turning just half of their red zone possessions into touchdowns and went 0 for 2 in last week’s loss to Jacksonville , settling for Chris Boswell field goals when six points would have changed the complexion of the game.

“It’s been bad, yeah,” guard David DeCastro said.

The solution is both simple and complicated.

The offensive line by its own admission has struggled to match its play from the second half of 2016, when the Steelers relied heavily on the ground game and Bell to rip off nine straight victories.

The return of right tackle Marcus Gilbert from a hamstring injury on Sunday should help. It allows Haley to turn reserve lineman Chris Hubbard into a 286-pound blocking tight end, a package that helped Bell average nearly 150 yards rushing a game during Pittsburgh’s sprint to the playoffs a year ago.

At the same time, in Brown, Bryant and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger has as dynamic a group of targets as any team in the league. At least in theory.

In practice, it’s been more difficult. Brown leads the league in receptions (40) and yards receiving (545). Neither Bryant nor Smith-Schuster is in the top 75 in either category.

Asked recently if he’s concerned Roethlisberger may be forcing the ball to him too much because chemistry with Bryant and Smith-Schuster has been slow to develop, Brown answered, “I’m always open for business.”

Not always.

Pittsburgh’s red zone issues date back to last season. The Steelers needed six Boswell field goals to edge the Chiefs in the division round of the playoffs.

As the rematch looms, the issues don’t appear to be getting any better.

Trailing by a point against Jacksonville early in the third quarter, Pittsburgh had the ball at the Jacksonville 5. Roethlisberger threw incomplete to Smith-Schuster, then flipped a shovel pass to Bell for 3 yards.

On third down, Roethlisberger, who has completed less than half of his red-zone pass attempts, audibled at the line and threw a prayer for Brown in the back corner of the end zone instead of handing it off to Bell, who has scored on all three carries inside the 5 this season.

“We got to figure out a formula to where we have a certain identity,” Bell said. “Whether the defense knows what we’re going to do or not, we’ve got to go out here and execute. That’s the biggest thing for us.”

There’s time to get it together, but considering a schedule that includes games against the Chiefs, Detroit, New England and Green Bay, the offense can’t stay sluggish for much longer.

“We haven’t quite, any of us, played quite up to potential for a lot of different reasons,” Haley said.

Kansas City would be a good place to start.