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Ben Roethlisberger's largely abysmal return raises questions for struggling Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the Steelers lineup after injuring his MCL on Oct. 16. Based on a mostly disappointing performance Sunday, he likely returned too soon. 

Ben Roethlisberger returned too soon. That’s the easiest explanation for what went wrong for the Steelers in a 21–14 loss at Baltimore on Sunday. He injured his MCL on Oct. 16, had surgery shortly thereafter and was supposed to miss upwards of a month, so of course bringing him back about two weeks later was pushing it.

That explanation—"Ben wasn’t ready"—might be true in a general sense, but arguing that he held the offense back because he wasn’t healthy sort of ignores a few fourth-quarter plays.

On one, with about 9:30 left, Roethlisberger bobbled a snap, escaped the pocket to his left to avoid pressure and then threw a pass 40 yards back across his body toward the end zone, nearly connecting with Antonio Brown. Two snaps later, while rolling to his right, he delivered a dart on the numbers to Brown for a TD. Pittsburgh’s second touchdown, in the closing seconds, came when Roethlisberger scrambled and then dove into the end zone.

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Odds are that Roethlisberger was not 100% Sunday. At least by the fourth quarter, though, he sure as heck looked steady enough to be out there. So, what happened? There are a few potential explanations:

1. Roethlisberger was much farther removed from full health than he looked late—he’s a tough player who knew his team was on the ropes, so he may have just thrown caution to the wind for a few plays.

2. The Steelers were worried about him, even though he suited up. This would explain the conservative approach in the first half by coordinator Todd Haley. Take, for example, a 3rd-and-4 near midfield in the second quarter: Rather than put the ball in Roethlisberger’s hands, Pittsburgh ran an inside handoff to Le’Veon Bell for no gain, then punted.

3. The Steelers just aren’t that good. It is time to consider this possibility. This is now a 4-4 team riding three straight losses, and one that on top of its offensive issues couldn’t generate a pass rush nor cover consistently Sunday.

Option No. 4, I suppose, is of the all-of-the-above variety, combined with the Ravens being better than the four-game skid they carried entering Sunday. And that’s likely where we land if trying to figure this all out. Roethlisberger was still feeling the after-effects of his surgery and/or had to shake off rust before finding a groove, Haley called a miserable game, and the AFC North is a great deal muddier than it appeared early in the season when Pittsburgh seemed on the brink of running away with it.

"We were a highly penalized group that created some third-down situations that were insurmountable," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "We had some very makeable plays, dropped balls and such. We can't be that type of team, the margin of error is too thin for us to slice it in that manner."

Roethlisberger finished the game 23 of 45 for 264 yards plus two total TDs, the majority of those stats coming with Baltimore playing loose defense in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh did not hit the 100-yard mark as a team until that final stanza; its 66 yards was its lowest halftime total with Roethlisberger at QB since the 2009 season.

The Ravens had something to do with that, without question. They entered Sunday with a top-five rushing defense, and held Le’Veon Bell to 32 yards on 14 carries. A Matt Judon sack in the closing moments kept Pittsburgh from ever making it a nail-biter, too.

But the Steelers have not looked right since waxing the Jets a month ago, in Week 5. They were pummeled by Miami on the road the following week, 30-15, and Roethlisberger played the majority of that game. A loss sans-Big Ben to the Patriots the following Sunday was predictable, if closer than expected.

They no doubt prayed Roethlisberger’s return would spark a critical, intra-division win vs. Baltimore. Instead, they now head home for a game with NFC frontrunner Dallas with a lot more weight on their shoulders.

Would the Steelers have been better served holding Ben back until Week 10 and using Landry Jones again for this game? Perhaps, but if Roethlisberger said he was ready and the doctors gave him the go-ahead, there was no way the coaching staff was going to hold him out.

"He was healthy enough to play, he was willing to play. We made the decision, we won't second-guess, we won't look back at all. We appreciate his effort and his display of will," Tomlin said.

The offense, obviously, is at its best when Roethlisberger is his usual self—as he appeared to be in the fourth quarter. So much of what the Steelers can do when they’re clicking relies on their star QB’s ability to make plays on the fly, keeping pressure on the defense for longer than most NFL quarterbacks are able to.

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There wasn’t much classic Roethlisberger to behold until Baltimore had raced out to a 21-0 lead. Even on the possession after the Ravens made it 13-0 in the third quarter, the Steelers responded with back-to-back runs by Bell, totaling minus-2 yards, then an incompletion to a double-covered Antonio Brown. No creativity there.

Maybe another week would have helped, but this wasn’t just a Roethlisberger-centric problem Sunday. The Steelers were not good, from their erratic QB to a shaky defense to a coaching staff that failed to draw up a working game plan.

Roethlisberger is too good to expect his lull to continue. The Steelers have no chance to be a Super Bowl contender if it does.