PITTSBURGH (AP) — When Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field in Baltimore on Nov. 6, just 20 days removed from surgery on his left knee, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sent a message to his offensive line:
Protect Roethlisberger or else.
"He said 'we can't let him get hit,'" guard Ramon Foster. "We need Ben standing up."
Things didn't exactly go as planned. Roethlisberger took two sacks in a lethargic and rusty 21-14 loss and hit the deck once the following week while getting clipped late by Dallas in a 35-30 defeat that dropped the Steelers to 4-5. A once promising season on the brink of spiraling out of control, Pittsburgh instead switched direction midstream.
The talk of averaging 30 points a game died down. The ball found its way to running back Le'Veon Bell's hands with borderline alarming regularity. And Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley crafted game plans that called for shorter routes, ramping up a mindset that's evolved in recent years as Roethlisberger morphed from "hang in there until the last second" gunslinger to "decisive CEO."
Roethlisberger has been sacked just twice during the four-game winning streak the Steelers (8-5) take into Cincinnati (5-7-1) on Sunday. The Steelers are second in the NFL in fewest sacks given up (18) and Roethlisberger is on pace to go down the fewest times in his 13-year career. Call it the byproduct of playing behind one of the league's top offensive lines and some very basic math.
"If he's in, we win," Foster said. "Keeping him protected is our No. 1 goal."
It's a goal Roethlisberger takes as seriously as the guys in front of him. With Bell producing at a record-setting pace, the play calling has become far more flexible. The Steelers passed 24 times and ran 13 in the first half last week against Buffalo, a ratio that flipped to 26 rushes and just five passes after halftime in a 27-20 victory.
"Coach has definitely stressed that, simplifying it, eliminating mental errors," guard David DeCastro said. "Just getting back to basics and it really worked out for us. We've found out what works too. If the run works, stick with it and if the pass works, stick with it."
The struggling Bengals don't quite pose the same threat as they have in recent years, though there's something about the Steelers that brings out an extra level of vitriol. The last time Roethlisberger took snaps at Paul Brown Stadium, he guided Pittsburgh to an emotionally charged and physically draining win in the wild card round of last season's playoffs. Roethlisberger basically played the last drive with his right arm numb after being driven into the ground while getting sacked by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
The Steelers survived thanks in large part to a meltdown by Burfict and teammates in final moments. Things were relatively tame in the first meeting this season, a 24-16 Pittsburgh win that Burfict missed while serving a suspension as penance for a variety of violations. He'll be back this time around, and Roethlisberger will be watching.
"You just have to know where he is," Roethlisberger said. "He takes his chances as well. He'll shoot gaps and come up to try to stop the runs. And also, you saw last week or two weeks ago, he gets interceptions as well."
Roethlisberger is hoping to improve on last week's three-interception performance in Buffalo, mistakes the Steelers were able to survive rather easily thanks to Bell. Thriving when its franchise quarterback is having an off day is a luxury Pittsburgh often couldn't afford. The way Foster figures it, this simply means Roethlisberger is due for a breakout, one that's only capable so long as his No. 7 is in the huddle.
For all of Bell's remarkable talent, the Steelers will continue to go as Roethlisberger does.
"The more and more we keep him up and not looking around, the better it is for us," Foster said.
What to watch on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium:
AGELESS WONDER: Pittsburgh's resurgent pass rush has been led by 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison, who retired briefly in 2014 after spending a forgettable season with the Bengals before returning to the Steelers. Harrison's five sacks lead the team and he played every defensive snap in last week's victory over Buffalo.
"James is a marvel," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
STOPPING AB: The Bengals focused on containing WR Antonio Brown during their game in Pittsburgh earlier this season, and it worked. He was held to four catches for 39 yards. Brown hasn't scored a touchdown in his past three games against Cincinnati. He needs one TD catch from Roethlisberger to make the two of them the Steelers' all-time duo, moving ahead of Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann, who also had 49 touchdown plays.
ON A TEAR: The Steelers are reveling in what coach Mike Tomlin calls "December Football." Pittsburgh is 13-2 over its past 15 games in December, a stretch that propelled the Steelers to playoff berths in 2014 and 2015. If they can do it again this season, the AFC North leaders will reach the postseason for the third straight year, something they haven't yet done during Tomlin's 10-year tenure.
"December football is all about running the ball and playing good defense, and we've done that," tackle Marcus Gilbert said.