When the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 4, they went into the game with the 26th-ranked passing offense, but wondered whether they could keep up with the Bengals if pressed.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked point blank: Can you win a shootout?

His reply: “I think we can. We can throw the ball. We’re waiting for that opportunity, for someone to give us a chance to do it.”

He was wrong. Not about his ability to throw the ball – he was wrong about whether the Steelers could win by doing so. Roethlisberger set career highs with 41 attempts, 29 completions, 386 yards and three touchdown passes in a 38-31 loss.

Just for kicks, someone asked Roethlisberger the same question this week: Can the Steelers win a shootout with the Bengals at 4:30 this afternoon in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs at Paul Brown Stadium?

His reply: “I would hope so. The last time we played them at home we threw a lot more. I think if we don’t turn the ball over then we probably win that game. So if it comes down to it, I think we can.”

The Steelers turned the ball over four times that day in their home loss to the Bengals. During the win in October, the Steelers turned it over two times and dominated the action, 27-13.

However, the difference in the two games might not have been the turnovers, but the opportunities for turnovers.

In the loss, Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 43 times and served up three interceptions. In the win, he dropped back 15 times and threw only one interception.

In spite of the evidence, Hines Ward stands with his quarterback in saying the loss was due to turnovers, not the game plan.

“The one tipped ball, if I don’t tip it maybe they don’t get to it,” Ward said. “Ben tried to force a long ball on third down and the other one bounced off a guy and ended up getting picked.”

So, Ward wouldn’t mind another philosophical shift into a shootout this afternoon?

“We may not be a passing team,” he said, “but if they keep putting eight or nine in the box, and we’re not getting anything done, then you have to pass the ball. You pay the quarterback big money. You pay the receivers to make big plays. Passing the ball didn’t lose that game; turnovers did.

“That was just one game. We still don’t know. If that’s what we have to do, we have the confidence to do that. We’re not going to change our identity – we’re still going to try to run – but if they’re going to put so many guys in there, you have to take advantage of this.”

It used to be, the Bengals would put eight, nine, 10 in the box to stop Jerome Bettis, but they never really stopped him. Bettis has had more success against the Bengals than any other NFL team. He’s rushed for 1,794 yards against them. Second best is the 969 yards he’s gained against Baltimore.

Certainly, Bettis wouldn’t want the Steelers to “take what the Bengals give them,” would he?

“If they bring the eighth man down, we know how to run the ball,” Bettis said in a hopeful start to his response. After all, the Bengals rank 27th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (4.3).

“But,” Bettis said, “you have to take advantage of the big-play opportunity they give you when they’re trying to take our running game away. I mean, if the middle’s wide open, you’ve got to throw to Heath (Miller). He’s got great hands and can run and give us some big yardage the easy way.

“I know we’re getting away from what we do, but you have to take advantage of those big holes in the field if you can.”

So, Jerome, how many times should the Steelers pass the ball?

“Not 40,” he said. “That’s too many. That’s usually a sign of being behind. Thirty? That’s still a little high.”

The Steelers attempted to pass 43 times (two sacks) and ran 28 times in the loss to the Bengals. They attempted to pass 15 times (one sack) and ran 47 times in the win.

What about 15 pass attempts?

“That’s a perfect world, but that’s not realistic,” Bettis said with a laugh. “I think 25’s about the optimum number. I’m comfortable with that.”

It sounds like a game plan.

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