Steelers Sunday Spotlight: The quarterback ... in Big Ben they trust
There's no need for the Steelers to draft the heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger yet, but depth behind him could be an issue.
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Not long after the Steelers' 2011 season ended with an agonizing playoff defeat in Denver -- a game in which Ben Roethlisberger rallied the team with two late scores to force overtime -- team president Art Rooney II said his two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback would have to "tweak" his game to continue to survive in the National Football League.
To help facilitate the process, the Steelers hired Todd Haley as offensive coordinator to replace Bruce Arians. The move was designed to get Roethlisberger to be more disciplined in the pocket and smarter with the ball.
At age 30, they wanted him to use his experience to be more of a cerebral quarterback than a gunslinger, a player who could surgically dissect a defense with play-calling rather than relying solely on a free-wheeling, playground mentality that Roethlisberger has had since he was a rookie in 2004.
And, for most of the first half of the 2012 season, it seemed to be working. The offense, while lacking the big-play signature of past seasons, became one of the most efficient in the league. It led the NFL in third-down conversions and time of possession by a large margin, mainly because Roethlisberger was leading the NFL in third-down passing. What's more, he was having one of the best seasons of his nine-year career.
But something happened after Roethlisberger injured his ribs and shoulder against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 9 and missed the next three games. When he returned, he was not the same quarterback. And the offense lacked the same efficiency. The Steelers lost their next three games and, in the process, control of what once was their playoff fate.
Roethlisberger threw four interceptions in that three-game spiral -- as many as he threw in the first nine games combined. Worse, two of the interceptions were as costly as any he has thrown in his career.
The first came on the second play of overtime in Dallas, an out pattern intended for Mike Wallace in which Roethlisberger committed the cardinal sin for that route -- throwing the ball to the inside, not the outside. One play later, the Cowboys kicked a 21-yard field goal for a 27-24 victory.
The other came a week later in a winner-take-all game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. With 24 seconds remaining and the score tied, 10-10, Roethlisberger tried to make a play down the sideline and badly overthrew Wallace. Safety Reggie Nelson intercepted the pass and, two plays later, the Bengals kicked a 43-yard field goal with :04 remaining for a 13-10 victory. The loss eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention.
Those are the kind of mental mistakes the Steelers had hoped Roethlisberger had learned to avoid. And they will no doubt be a point of emphasis heading into the 2013 season.
Roethlisberger remains one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, one of only three who are active to have multiple Super Bowl rings. Despite his late-season struggles, he still threw 26 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions in 13 games -- the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career. As long as he is the quarterback, the Steelers are not out of any game or any season.
But, he will be working behind an offensive line in 2013 that could be the youngest in the NFL, especially if left tackle Max Starks is not re-signed and left guard Willie Colon is released. And he likely will lose his home run target in Wallace, who is an unrestricted free agent and expected to sign elsewhere. Roethlisberger and Wallace combined for 14 touchdowns of 40 yards or longer in four seasons, the most by an active NFL duo.
What's more, Roethlisberger and Haley are going to have to find some common ground in their professional relationship -- that is, what plays to call and who is going to call them. There were some fractious moments last season between the two, and it could escalate further in 2013 if Roethlisberger doesn't think he is performing his best in Haley's offense.
One thing is certain:
The Steelers will need to find another backup quarterback, either in the draft or free agency. They have drafted one quarterback since they drafted Roethlisberger in 2004, and that was Dennis Dixon -- a fifth-round pick in 2008. Before Roethlisberger, the previous quarterback they selected in a draft was Brian St. Pierre in the fifth round in 2003.
The Steelers will not retain Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch -- both of whom are unrestricted free agents -- and it appears the odd man out will be Leftwich. Since the Steelers reacquired him in a draft-day trade in 2010, Leftwich has had three seasons interrupted by injury, including 2011 when he missed the entire season.
Last season, he injured his ribs and shoulder in the first game he played for Roethlisberger and eventually lost the backup job to Batch. He is too much of an injury liability to be re-signed, especially at last year's price ($2.1 million).
Batch will be 39 in December, but he proved in the second half in Baltimore he is still capable of helping the team win. He is expected to return and hold the seat one more year until a younger backup -- or free-agent addition -- is in place.
This year's crop of rookie quarterbacks lacks the marquee player such as last year when Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the draft, respectively. But there are enough quarterbacks who will be middle-round picks that the Steelers could find a backup somewhere after the fourth round.
One could be Zac Dysert, who played at Miami University in Ohio-- Roethlisberger's school -- and would like nothing better than to continue to follow him to the Steelers. Dysert is 6 feet 4, 228 pounds and grew up in Ada, Ohio.
"I've always looked up to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers," Dysert said at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. "He grew up 20 minutes from me. Ben was always a big name in our area. It would be exactly like following in his footsteps."
First Published March 3, 2013 12:00 am