Big Ben mired in a rare slump for a winner


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LONDON -- Big Ben stands majestically in the north end of the Palace of Westminster, a symbol of London's culture and a famously identifiable landmark that serves as a source of pride for the people of this British capital.

At a height of 315 feet, the Neo-gothic architectural tower houses the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and produces the sounds that traditionally ring in Europe's new year. The main bell in the tower, sometimes known as the Great Bell, is what is actually called Big Ben.

It is here, a long way from Heinz Field, that the Steelers hope their Big Ben regains his chime.

It isn't so much that Ben Roethlisberger has suddenly become an erratic quarterback who couldn't throw a football in the River Thames from the Tower of London. On the contrary, he passed for more than 400 yards last week against the Chicago Bears that included a couple spectacular touchdown throws to Antonio Brown.

What is disturbing, though, is that Roethlisberger and the Steelers are 0-3 heading into today's 1 p.m. game against the equally winless Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium, a start to the season that he and his teammates have never experienced.

What's more, the poor start -- the worst since 2000 -- is a continuation of how it all ended in 2012 when the Steelers lost three of their final four games to miss the playoffs. That slide came immediately after Roethlisberger returned from a three-game absence because of a shoulder and rib injury.

Since his return, Roethlisberger is in the throes of the worst seven-game stretch of his 10-year career. In that time, he has posted a 1-6 record and generated more turnovers (14) than touchdowns (13).

It is a rare dimension for the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback; for that matter, it is rare for any two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

Consider: Among the 11 quarterbacks in NFL history who have won multiple Super Bowls, only Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys has gone 1-6 in a seven-game stretch after winning his second Super Bowl ring.

Aikman, though, had already won three Super Bowls when he lost the final five games of the 1997 season and the second game of the 1998 season with the Cowboys. No other quarterback with multiple Super Bowl titles has ever won just one game in any seven-game stretch after winning their second ring.

"I expect Ben to be better," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Ben expects himself to be better."

A tale of two classes

It has always made for a nice argument, the debate over which quarterback class was better -- the draft class of 1983 that produced John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly or the 2004 class of Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers?

In 64 combined years in the NFL, Elway, Marino and Kelly accumulated 148,303 yards passing -- that's 84.3 miles -- and 957 touchdowns. They rewrote record books, appeared in 10 Super Bowls and were all first-ballot inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The 1983 class didn't just include Elway, Kelly and Marino. Three other quarterbacks were also drafted in the first round -- Todd Blackledge of Penn State (No. 7 overall), Tony Eason (15th) and Ken O'Brien (24th) -- though none had the success approaching the more famous trio.

But for all of their success, the quarterback draft class of 1983 produced just two Super Bowl victories -- both by Elway.

Conversely, the quarterback class of 2004 has already yielded more Super Bowl winners -- two each by Roethlisberger and Manning, who combined to win four of the eight Super Bowls after they entered the league. Rivers has not won a Super Bowl with the San Diego Chargers but, like Roethlisberger with the Steelers and Manning with the New York Giants, his team never had a losing season from 2005 to 2012. The only other team that could make that claim was the New England Patriots.

Look what has happened now.

Roethlisberger and Manning are off to the worst starts of their career and have yet to win a game in 2013. Rivers has put up good numbers, but the hard-luck Chargers, who have had all three games decided in the final 15 seconds, are 1-2. Combined, the three quarterbacks have produced a 1-8 record in 2013.

Manning, who won Super Bowls in 2007 and 2011, both times outdueling Tom Brady and the Patriots, has struggled the most. He has thrown a league-high eight interceptions in three games and his 70.5 passer rating is third-lowest in the NFC. Dating to last season, he is 2-5 in his past seven games.

"I think he's pressing," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said of Manning. "I think he's pressing a little bit. Our running game is struggling. Our O-line is struggling right now. They have some people misplaced and their chemistry isn't clicking right now.

"So I think Eli knows there's a lot more pressure on him to make a play and he's forcing it a little bit. But I have all the faith they're going to correct it."

Sound familiar?

A similar case can be made for Roethlisberger, especially after last Sunday night when he had twice as many turnovers (four) as touchdowns (two), throwing two interceptions and losing two of his three fumbles. Two of his four giveaways were returned for touchdowns -- a 38-yard interception return and a 42-yard fumble return.

As a quarterback, Roethlisberger said he can live with the occasional interception. But the fumbles are a different matter. He has lost six since he came back from injury, including two against the Bears. And that bothers Roethlisberger more than an interception.

"Yeah, probably a little bit, just because picks are kind of what a quarterback does," he said. "You throw the ball so much that it's just going to happen. For me, when they get it out on a sack or whatever it is, that bothers me because I feel like I can do better to control that."

But Roethlisberger insists he is not pressing to do too much. And offensive coordinator Todd Haley agrees.

"That was part of my frustration after the game on Monday and Tuesday -- I don't feel like I'm pressing," Roethlisberger said. "I don't feel like I'm trying to do too much. I know I've done that. At the end of last year, I really felt like I was pressing too much and trying to do too much and put too much on my shoulders. I don't feel like I've done that this year, and that's why I'm so frustrated that things haven't turned out the way that I've wanted them to.

"I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing and not trying to overcorrect anything, be even better and eliminate all these things because I think it takes you out of your own element, your own game plan."

Nobody would blame Roethlisberger if he did try to do too much. After all, isn't that what stars are supposed to do when their teams are struggling?

But Roethlisberger is starting to get some help. Last week, tight end Heath Miller returned from offseason knee surgery, reuniting the quarterback with his leading receiver from 2012. Today, rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, who had already been anointed a starter in training camp, returns from a ligament tear in his foot to make his NFL debut.

Asked if he thought Roethlisberger was trying to do too much, Haley said: "I really don't. We've talked about that as a staff and talked to him and tried to look at it. It does not appear that anything is happening because he's trying to do too much. As soon as we had the injuries early to [Maurkice] Pouncey and LaRod [Stephens-Howling], we made sure we were on that and that everyone had to play within their own abilities and let the plays happen. It just comes down to protecting the football at all costs.

"Chicago does a great job at getting the ball out and they did a great job in our game, unfortunately, because we put a great emphasis on it and knew what we were in for and still let it happen. Across the board, we have to protect the football and better things will happen for us."

A balancing act

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier worries about the same issues with his star running back, Adrian Peterson, the NFL's MVP in 2012.

Because the Vikings are 0-3 and struggling to get their passing game working with quarterback Christian Ponder, Frazier understands that players such as Peterson walk a slippery slope between trying to do too much to help their team and feeling as though they haven't done enough.

Peterson is off to something of a slow start this season, averaging, for him, a very pedestrian 4.1 yards per carry. But it is hard to say Peterson is off to a slow start after he ran 78 yards for a touchdown on his first carry of the 2013 season.

"We talked to some of our key guys about that," Frazier said. "We have seen some of them pressed in certain situations in the first three games. We have to understand that we have to trust our teammates to do their jobs. We only need each player to do his job. If you are Peterson or [defensive end] Jared Allen [and they think] 'I've got to take the whole team on my back,' that creates other problems for our football team.

"You try to get that message across. Hopefully guys buy into it and just concentrate on doing the very best they can at their role."

For Big Ben, that means helping the Steelers ring up victories -- as he is accustomed to doing.

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published September 29, 2013 4:00 AM


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