PITTSBURGH (AP) — Charlie Batch paused last week when he was asked if he could make the same throws he did a decade ago.
“No!” the soon-to-be 38-year-old Steelers backup quarterback said before bursting into laughter.
Turns out, he was right.
Passes fluttering in the late fall wind, Batch tossed three interceptions — two in the fourth quarter — in Sunday’s comically bad 20-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns. Pittsburgh turned it over eight times, committed nine penalties and scored two measly touchdowns against a team it had beaten in 16 of the last 17 meetings.
“I put the game on my shoulders to try and go down and put my team in the end zone and I wasn’t able to do that,” Batch said.
The loss is hardly on Batch’s shoulders — not when the Steelers (6-5) fumbled the ball away five times — but with the Browns daring Batch to beat them with his arm by stacking the line of scrimmage to shut down the running game, Batch’s ineffectiveness showcased just how ramshackle the Steelers can look without injured starter Ben Roethlisberger under center.
It’s uncertain if Roethlisberger’s sprained right (throwing) shoulder will be ready to go next Sunday at rival Baltimore (9-2). What is certain? The Steelers — arguably the hottest team in the league after a road victory over the New York Giants three weeks ago — have run out of any wiggle room if they want to make the playoffs.
The Steelers are tied with Cincinnati for the AFC’s second wild card spot with five weeks remaining in the regular season. Pittsburgh’s remaining schedule includes a trip to Dallas and visits from San Diego and the Bengals in addition to Sunday’s journey to Baltimore, where the Steelers have won just twice in their last nine visits.
“It leaves us in a little bit of a hole,” linebacker James Harrison said.
One that could be particularly difficult to crawl out of if Roethlisberger doesn’t return soon. The Steelers have scored just two offensive touchdowns in the 10-plus quarters since he went down in the third quarter of a 16-13 overtime win against the Chiefs on Nov. 12.
Batch and fellow backup Byron Leftwich — out indefinitely with fractured ribs — have been rusty and the three-pronged rushing attack has gone nowhere. Coach Mike Tomlin insists there’s no need to pick a feature back among Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, saying he has confidence in all three.
That confidence is all but gone after the trio managed 15 carries for 22 yards and three fumbles against the Browns.
“The running backs, we didn’t do well, and we put (Batch) in bad situations,” Dwyer said. “We put our defense in bad situations. The running game was supposed to help Charlie out. We let him down.”
Injuries to right tackle Mike Adams and left guard Willie Colon didn’t help matters, though the patchwork line had been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises. Pittsburgh had a back top 100 yards three times during a four-game winning streak that helped the Steelers rebound from a 2-3 start, finding success with whomever they put out there.
Now, whomever they put out there can’t hold onto the ball.
“We are going to play people that can secure the football, but after everybody does it, obviously there aren’t very many choices left,” Tomlin said.
And his team has no choice but to shore things up — quickly — if it wants to play into January, though at this point Pittsburgh would settle for playing something resembling “Steeler football.”
“I think everybody should have a resolve about themselves to play better and to get better at their craft,” tight end Heath Miller said. “I think sometimes it’s harder to do when you win a few games; you play well, it’s easy to overlook some things. I don’t see how we can overlook what we need to do to get better at this point.”
The defense included, even if it did everything it could to keep the Steelers in it. Cleveland’s two touchdown drives totaled just 41 yards in length thanks to turnovers that gave the Browns excellent field position.
Pittsburgh sacked Brandon Weeden four times, returned an interception for a score and held Cleveland to just 238 yards.
Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Steelers from enduring their first two-game losing streak in three years.
“We have to make plays,” nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “You can sit here and say ‘We turned the ball over this many times,’ but we get opportunities to get turnovers we have to do that too and give our team the short field sometimes. You can’t put it all on one side of the ball. It’s everybody. Everybody could have done a little bit more to win.”
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