After one day of training camp, it seems obvious the Steelers have a lot going against them. Casey Hampton is too fat. Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu are too lame. The offensive line could be too weak. The defensive line could be too old. The schedule is too tough. The Cleveland Browns could be too strong.
But the Steelers also have one very important thing going for them.
"It almost scares me how good he is, how into it he is and how good he's going to be," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was saying between camp practices yesterday.
Probably scares a few NFL defensive coordinators, too.
The Steelers are lucky to have an elite player at football's most crucial position, the best quarterback in the league not named Tom Brady. You might argue for Peyton Manning. The Steelers and I will take Ben Roethlisberger at this stage of their careers. That's why the Steelers gave him a $102 million contract in March, including a $25.2 million signing bonus. That's why I'm here to tell you this morning he is the one reason to like the Steelers' chances of holding off the Browns in the AFC North Division.
I'm thankful I have the easy part, not the money part.
Roethlisberger has done so much so quickly that it's easy to forget he's 26, starting his fifth season. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to go 13-0 in the regular season as a rookie in 2004. He led the Steelers to the Super Bowl in '05. Forget '06 because of his motorcycle accident, emergency appendectomy and concussion. He set franchise records last season with 32 touchdown passes and a 104.1 passer rating and made his first Pro Bowl.
"He's going to continue to grow as a quarterback," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He'll keep getting better and better."
Arians already has seen it on the practice fields at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe. "It's the way he carries himself," he said. "It's a night-and-day difference now from where he was two years ago. Then, he was like, 'I've got to take care of myself. This stuff is hard.' Now, he's like, 'I've got most of it down. I can help the other guys.' "
In the team run test Sunday, Roethlisberger was the first to Hampton when Hampton clearly was struggling. (Unfortunately, he didn't kick The Big Snack in his fat behind for letting his coaches and teammates down). After the morning practice yesterday, he walked off the field with wide receiver Willie Reid, who had a couple of minor dust-ups with defensive players during drills. "You have to be smart," Roethlisberger could be heard telling Reid.
I'm thinking the Steelers bought a little leadership for that $102 million.
But let's be real here. The Rooneys paid the big money for big plays, touchdown passes and wins. There are reasons to think Roethlisberger will deliver on all fronts.
There are the new rookie additions -- running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed, the big target Roethlisberger coveted -- to an offense that includes the ultimate possession receiver in Ward, a budding big-play man in Santonio Holmes, a terrific tight end in Heath Miller and a healthy Willie Parker at running back.
"I think we have an explosive offense that's ready to take off," Roethlisberger said.
There is an underappreciated offensive line that's better than the 47 sacks the Steelers gave up last season, at least according to the poor fellow who was on the receiving end of all 47 and was lucky to walk away from the last game. "I'm excited for those guys so they can silence the critics who are talking bad about them," Roethlisberger said. "I have all the faith in the world that they'll protect me."
There is an apparent willingness on Arians' part to use a bit more of the no-huddle offense, much to Roethlisberger's delight.
"It's just always been that when things go faster and get crazy and I'm calling my own plays, things seem to work better for me," Roethlisberger said.
But mostly, there is Big Ben.
It's fair to think Roethlisberger's greatest improvement will show in the interceptions he doesn't throw and the sacks he doesn't take. Arians said that's nothing more than maturity.
"Ben has great confidence in his ability to make a play when it looks like it might not be there," he said. "I never want to take that away from him. But, at the same time, he'll get better knowing when it's OK to throw the darn thing away. Why take a hit that you don't have to? Why force something and throw that interception?"
Roethlisberger threw three picks in the first half of the playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, a big reason the Steelers trailed by 18 points going into the fourth quarter. It didn't matter that he played the position as well as you can play it in the second half, completing 17 of 23 passes for 188 yards, leading four consecutive scoring drives and putting the Steelers ahead late. They ended up losing, 31-29.
"I'm ashamed of the way I played," Roethlisberger said afterward.
The man didn't back off those words much this week.
"It's one of those things that you're disappointed because you let a lot of guys down. But you can't dwell on it because, if you do, you're not going to get better. You let it go. It's over. I'm moving on."
And taking the Steelers with him.
Make no mistake about this:
Big Ben is their best chance of going a long way.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .