Ron Cook: Roethlisberger the key man

Big Ben has the keys to the offense and how long the ride lasts will depend on his play

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Amid all of the uncertainty surrounding the Steelers as they prepare to gather at Saint Vincent College tomorrow for the start of training camp -- and there's plenty involving the offensive linemen, outside linebackers, cornerbacks and even the new head coach with the 0-0 record -- one question looms largest:

Will Big Ben throw the ball to the right team this season?

If Roethlisberger delivers the proper answer, not to mention the ball to the fellows in the black-and-gold uniforms, the Steelers will have a successful season. You think that's too simplistic? The team would have made the playoffs last season if Roethlisberger hadn't been horrendous for reasons ranging from bad luck with his health to bad protection from his linemen to just plain bad play from him. He was so horrendous -- throwing an NFL-high 23 interceptions, three more than his total from the previous two seasons -- that 46 percent of the respondents to a highly scientific Post-Gazette Internet poll called for his benching at mid-season and for Charlie Batch to start. Still, the Steelers went 8-8 and were in the hunt for a playoff spot until the next-to-last weekend.

Is it really so hard to believe the team will be better if Roethlisberger is better?

"I know he is very motivated and very competitive," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week. "I know, on a personal note, he feels like he has some critics to answer. I expect big things from him."

Roethlisberger has much going for him again, nothing more important than his good health. It's pretty safe to assume he won't wreck a motorcycle or grow another appendix before the start of the season. Now concussions? They are an occupational hazard, especially for a guy who will set up behind a line that is unsure of its starters at three positions and has a disgruntled All-Pro, Alan Faneca, at a fourth. Weak line play was a significant factor in Roethlisberger being sacked 46 times last season and knocked out of the game at Atlanta in October.

But assuming the line isn't an absolute disaster and that Roethlisberger stays in one piece, there's reason to think he'll be the same quarterback he was in '05, when he led the Steelers to the Super Bowl, and in '04, his rookie year, when the team went 13-0 in his regular-season starts and made it to the AFC championship game. All indications are he worked harder this off-season than in the past, making a favorable impression on the new coach.

"He has behaved like a franchise quarterback," Tomlin said.

New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians certainly has placed his trust in Roethlisberger, giving him the kind of offense he long has wanted. The Steelers still are expected to pound the ball with their running game, but they'll also throw on early downs out of four-wide receiver or multiple-tight end formations. They frequently will run the no-huddle, a Roethlisberger favorite. He also will be responsible for changing the protection calls at the line for the first time, something everyone hopes will eliminate some of the blocking confusion from last season.

In other words, Tomlin and Arians have given Big Ben the keys to the car with directions to the Promised Land.

Super Bowl XLII.

OK, the playoffs, anyway.

"Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised," Roethlisberger told Steelers Digest.

The surprise won't be Roethlisberger playing well. The shock was him playing so poorly last season. His horrific motorcycle accident in June and his emergency appendectomy four days before the opener in September had some impact; he threw seven interceptions and no touchdown passes in his first three games after the appendectomy, all losses. But all of the blame can't go there. The Steelers' medical people cleared Roethlisberger. He also played spectacularly at times. The near-perfect 153.8 passer rating against Kansas City. The three touchdown passes against New Orleans. The game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown drive at Cleveland. The 67-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Santonio Holmes in overtime to beat the Bengals in Cincinnati.

But the bad far outweighed the good for Roethlisberger. Everyone blames Ricardo Colclough's fumble on a punt return for the home loss to Cincinnati, but Roethlisberger threw a killer interception from the Bengals' 6 earlier. He cost the Steelers a chance for a late tie at San Diego with a bad interception when he threw over the middle under pressure. And he almost single-handedly lost the game at Oakland when his interception from the Steelers' 11 was returned 24 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and his one from the Raiders' 7 was brought back 100 yards for a score in the fourth.

"I feel like I'm letting the team down," Roethlisberger said after the San Diego game in October. "I'm letting the fans down."

No kidding.

This is how important Roethlisberger is to the Steelers' success or lack thereof:

In the seven wins he engineered last season, he threw 12 touchdown passes and five interceptions. In the eight losses, he threw for six touchdowns with 18 interceptions.

Still think it's too simplistic to suggest the Steelers will go as far as Big Ben takes them?

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos
Despite throwing an NFL-high 23 interceptions last season, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers went 8-8 and were in the playoff hunt until the next-to-last weekend.
Click photo for larger image.Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians have given Big Ben the keys to the car with the directions to Super Bowl XLII.
Click photo for larger image.


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