- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers are every bit as explosive as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger promised during training camp.

Wide receiver Antonio Brown is on a streak unprecedented in NFL history. Le’Veon Bell is developing into arguably the best all-around running back in the league. All of it orchestrated by a quarterback who appears at the very height of his powers.

At least, until the Steelers get inside the red zone. Once the ball crosses the opponent’s 20, things change. The dynamic running game becomes an afterthought and the passing game that moves up and down the field with ease sputters.

The result? Too many field goals, too few touchdowns and plenty of missed opportunities. Pittsburgh has only crossed the goal line on 44 percent of its red zone possessions through the first five weeks, 25th in the NFL. The inability to punch it in is why the Steelers are fourth in total offense but only 18th in scoring heading into Sunday’s game at rapidly improving Cleveland.

“I know when we are playing well we are putting points on the board with seven,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We have a great deal of confidence in (kicker) Shaun Suisham but we need to put seven points on the board.”

Four trips to the red zone against Jacksonville last week resulted in all of 10 points during a lethargic 17-9 win over the Jaguars. Roethlisberger hit backup tight end Michael Palmer for a 1-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter but the other three possessions ended with a Suisham field goal, a Roethlisberger fumble and three kneel downs to end the game. Not exactly the kind of production Pittsburgh expected against one of the NFL’s weakest teams.

“There were three, four, five plays I’d like to have back but you can say that about any game,” Roethlisberger said.

The Steelers spent the offseason talking about the need to become more physical in the running game. They hired Hall of Famer Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line and signed 250-pound LeGarrette Blount to provide some thud at the goal line.

The statistics are downright gaudy. Bell is second in the league in yards from scrimmage and Blount is averaging a healthy 6.4 yards per carry. Yet they’ve become secondary options when the end zone is nearby. Pittsburgh has taken 47 snaps in the red zone. Bell and Blount have combined for only 12 carries for 42 yards and two touchdowns, both by Blount.

Bell scored eight touchdowns as a rookie last but has just one on 87 carries so far this season, a 38-yard sprint against Cleveland in the opener. While he’s perfectly comfortable with the ball in his hands at the goal line a few feet away, he’s not complaining about the lack of touches. He’s heavily involved in the passing game and Pittsburgh’s gameplan relies heavily on screen passes that are little more than extended handoffs.

“The plays that are called are the plays that work,” Bell said. “Obviously people would like to see us run it down there and if we don’t, we’ve got to find another way to get into the end zone.”

As skewed as the numbers seem, Roethlisberger defends the play selection. Last he checked he had a Pro Bowl wide receiver, the finest tight end in team history and a speedy group of role players at his disposal. Throw out the kneel downs and Pittsburgh ran 10 plays in the red zone against the Jaguars, with Roethlisberger dropping back on each one.

“That’s me calling plays, feeling like we have the advantage in the pass game down there so I called passes,” he said. “I don’t regret any of it.”

Even if Roethlisberger admits he could be more efficient. With the Steelers driving for a potentially game-breaking score in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville, Roethlisberger lined up in the shotgun on second-and-4 at the Jaguars 14 only to fumble while getting sacked by Andre Branch.

Jacksonville recovered to blunt Pittsburgh’s momentum. Though Pittsburgh quickly grabbed it back when Brice McCain returned an interception for a touchdown two plays later, the Steelers know they need to tighten up against better teams.

“It’s not our job to worry about whether we’re running the ball more or passing it or whatever we do,” tight end Heath Miller said. “Whatever play is called, we need to execute it much better.”

NOTES: LB Ryan Shazier (sprained right knee) did not practice on Wednesday. Neither did S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring). … Several veterans, including DE Brett Keisel, S Troy Polamalu and S Mike Mitchell were given the day off.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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