2-0 or 0-2? Steelers, Roethlisberger eye improvement

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Judging by the tone of Ben Roethlisberger’s voice, it was hard to tell if the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-0 or 0-2.

No matter how the questions were framed following a 26-21 victory over Denver on Sunday that gave the Steelers their best start since 2017, the club’s longtime quarterback kept turning each answer into a referendum of sorts on his play. While quick to heap praise upon his young wide receivers — including rookie Chase Claypool and budding second-year star Diontae Johnson — Roethlisberger believes he needs to knock off whatever rust might remain from his injury-marred 2019 quickly.

“I didn’t connect with guys when they were open,” Roethlisberger said. “I just didn’t play well enough.”

Never mind that he completed 29 of 41 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns against an interception. Never mind that his rainbow to Claypool down the left sideline that turned into an 84-yard score was perfect. Never mind that his 28-yard dart to Johnson in the end zone came after the 38-year-old Roethlisberger extended the play with his legs as if he was briefly channeling a much younger version of himself.

Roethlisberger only saw the mistakes, though other than an ill-advised lob toward JuJu Smith-Schuster early in the third quarter that turned into a pick, he was highly efficient. Through two weeks he’s completed 69% of his passes and any concerns about the state of his surgically repaired right arm should be put to rest after throwing 73 passes in the span of 5 1/2 days.

The path figures to get more difficult in the coming weeks, though the early portion of the schedule looks decidedly more user friendly now than it did a month ago. Houston and Philadelphia are struggling and Cleveland remains a work in progress. All three visit Heinz Field over the next four weeks. Roethlisberger expects the timing issues he dealt with against the Broncos can be resolved relatively quickly.

“A lot of the throws that I missed tonight are just me needing to trust myself and trust that the guys are in the right spots because we are in the right places,” Roethlisberger said. “So hopefully it will come.”

WHAT’S WORKING

The Steelers have led the NFL in sacks each of the last three seasons. The defense certainly looks like it has all the ingredients to make it four straight. Pittsburgh had seven sacks against Denver and has 10 through two games. And not all of them are coming from outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Nickelback Mike Hilton — all 5-foot-9 of him — continues to be one of the most effective edge blitzers in the league. He already has two sacks, and safety Terrell Edmunds delivered the second of his three-year career when he raced in untouched and dropped Broncos backup quarterback Jeff Driskel with 1:51 to go to seal the victory.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Take out James Conner’s 59-yard sprint with less than two minutes to go, and the Steelers ran for 50 yards on 21 carries. Benny Snell, who played solidly in place of an injured Conner against the Giants, ran just twice for 5 yards and, even worse, fumbled for the second consecutive week.

“He’s a young guy growing in terms of situational awareness and things like that,” head coach Mike Tomlin said. “It will be a growth experience for him, but we’ve got some work to do there.”

STOCK UP

Rookie offensive lineman Kevin Dotson acquitted himself just fine in his first NFL start. Filling in for injured Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro, Doston won raves from Roethlisberger and a shoutout from Tomlin in helping anchor an offensive line that allowed one sack.

STOCK DOWN

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick hit his first significant bump in the road since arriving in Pittsburgh a year ago. The All-Pro was flagged twice against the Broncos, once for a horse-collar tackle and once for pass interference. That call extended a Denver drive that ended with a touchdown.

INJURED

The Steelers have survived the first two weeks relatively intact and could get significant help this week if DeCastro is able to return from a lingering knee injury that’s forced him to watch the first two weeks.

KEY NUMBER

220 — the number of games Roethlisberger has appeared in during his 17-year career, tied with Hall of Fame center Mike Webster for the most in franchise history.

NEXT STEPS

The first “Watt Bowl” will be played on Sunday when Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and the winless Texans (0-2) travels to Pittsburgh to face T.J. and Derek Watt. The game will mark the second time in 93 years that three brothers will appear in the same NFL game but the second in the last 10 months. Pittsburgh’s Terrell and Trey Edmunds shared a field with Buffalo linebacker and youngest brother Tremaine last December when the Bills visited Heinz Field.

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