PITTSBURGH — The problem, EJ Manuel insisted, wasn't rust. It wasn't the wind or the sprained right knee that forced him to miss a month, either.
There were chances to make a difference in Sunday's 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Manuel didn't take advantage of them. Neither did anyone else on an offense apparently fatigued by the revolving door behind center.
"There were plays that I missed," Manuel said. "I have just to get better from there."
Shouldn't be too difficult.
Manuel completed 22 of 39 passes for 155 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his return, most of the yards and the only score coming during a meaningless drive in the final minutes with the Bills (3-7) already on their way to a third straight loss.
"The kid missed four weeks and just came back," Buffalo coach Doug Marrone said. "He's trying his best. ... He's going through his footwork too quick and not (slowing) down to see things develop as quick. That happens to young quarterbacks."
Particularly when they play the Steelers.
Pittsburgh (3-6) improved to 18-2 when facing a rookie quarterback since 2004, redeeming itself a week after getting lit up by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a 55-31 loss.
The Bills managed just 227 total yards and ran for 95, 50 below their average. Manuel was sacked three times and never looked comfortable in blustery conditions that made going downfield a treacherous proposition. Manuel spent most of the day working in the face of a renewed pass rush and struggled with his accuracy when asked to do anything more than dump the ball to a running back.
Marrone never considered going to backup Thad Lewis, knowing his team's future rests in the hands of the 16th overall pick in last April's draft. Manuel was an immediate hit during an intriguing September. He hardly looked as polished while serving as Buffalo's third different starting quarterback in as many weeks.
"It doesn't matter who is at the helm," Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson said. "We have got to be able to come together as a team. It's not on one person or a couple players. This is a team game. We need to figure it out."
Something the Steelers are still trying to do after a miserable first half of the season left them mired at the bottom of the AFC North. They took a significant step Sunday.
"I think we went out there and answered the call today," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "We played like we're always supposed to."
Even if it took some time for the Steelers to take control
Roethlisberger, like Manuel, had issues with his command early in the game. He underthrew Markus Wheaton on Pittsburgh's opening drive. Jairus Byrd stepped in front and returned it 57 yards to the Pittsburgh 29.
Led by C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills made it all the way to the Pittsburgh 1. Rather than test a defense that has allowed the second-most TDs rushing in the NFL, Manuel lobbed pass toward the corner of the end zone that sailed well out of bounds. The Bills settled for a field goal.
"What we saw on film was that we probably had a good chance throwing the ball," Spiller said. "The wind did sail the ball a little bit. We just need to look at it and see what we could have done differently."
The Steelers got back into it by taking the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands and relying on a running game ranked 28th. A 25-yard run on an end around by Emmanuel Sanders highlighted a 13-play, 58-yard drive that ended with Shaun Suisham's 36-yard field goal.
Pittsburgh went in front the next time it had the ball. Bell raced 34 yards to midfield. Roethlisberger then found Antonio Brown for a 24-yard gain before hitting Jerricho Cotchery with a pretty 5-yard touchdown to make it 10-3.
Any chance Buffalo had of rallying ended late in the third quarter. Roethlisberger connected with Brown for a 40-yard gain, and Suisham came on for a short field goal attempt. Buffalo jumped offside, and two plays later Bell used a block from tight end Mike Adams to give the Steelers' their first 14-point lead at home this season.
An interception and a 50-yard punt return by Brown helped Pittsburgh tack on two more Suisham field goals, allowing the Steelers to enjoy a brief respite from two humbling months while sending the Bills back home wondering how a promising start has begun to turn into a familiar finish.
"My frustration level is a 10," Johnson said. "When you're losing games, nobody should be happy."
NOTES: The Bills had four sacks, pushing their season total to 33, including a career-high five by DE Jerry Hughes. ... Johnson left with a groin injury in the third quarter and did not return. ... The Bills have lost seven straight regular season games in Pittsburgh. ... Buffalo hosts the New York Jets next week. New York beat Buffalo 27-20 on Sept. 22.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org