Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes the ball under pressure from Cleveland Browns defensive end Carl Nassib (94) during the first half of an NFL football game in Cleveland, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016. (Ron Schwane/AP Photo)
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pittsburgh Steelers were a trendy Super Bowl pick in the preseason because they looked primed to capitalize on phase three of the Big Ben progression.
Phase one showcased a young Ben Roethlisberger coalescing with a veteran-laden team and a stacked defense on the way to two Super Bowls. Phase two produced a Super Bowl appearance in 2010 but an eventual two-year dip into mediocrity as general manager Kevin Colbert phased out many of those same veterans for younger players and Roethlisberger didn’t mesh with new offensive coordinator Todd Haley right away.
This should be peak phase three, with Roethlisberger having mastered Haley’s quick-strike passing system and all those defensive draft picks eager to match the intensity of the offense’s high-flying act.
Entering Thursday night’s matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, these Steelers are floating somewhere between stability and uneasiness. They sound prepared to climb out of their 5-5 hole, but uneven performances on the field haven’t validated that confidence.
If not now, then how long do the Steelers have to build another winner around a top-five quarterback who's approaching his mid-30s?
The blueprints designed by Drew Brees and Tom Brady suggest at least three years. That’s what Colbert thinks, too, telling ESPN last offseason that Roethlisberger, now 34, had three to four prime years left.
That’s a luxury for the franchise, assuming Roethlisberger stays healthy.
But all the Steelers’ moves pointed toward this being the year to make a serious push, leaving questions as to when things will fall into place around Roethlisberger.
Seven of the Steelers’ last eight draft picks from the first or second round came on defense, yet Pittsburgh ranks 21st in total defense through 10 games. Save maybe Cam Heyward, there’s not that one player who belongs in a conversation about the league’s best and fiercest defenders.
What felt like the Steelers’ crescendo has barely clanged a cymbal because of injury, a few underachieving parts and late-game struggles against Dallas and New England.
If the 2016 Steelers are home for January football, that leaves Roethlisberger entering his 14th season with a history of 450-plus sacks and knee injuries in back-to-back seasons.
Not that he can't play through that and produce high-level football. But those factors should and will amplify win-now mentality more than ever.
Preserving Roethlisberger for the long term is the offense limiting his sacks the last two years. Based on 23 starts from 2015-16, Roethlisberger is averaging 22.5 sacks per season, down significantly from 38 sacks a year from 2004-2014. It is fair to wonder if some of the damage to the body will take a cumulative toll.
The Steelers line is talented and should have at least a few more years together, as four of the five starters are 28 or younger (Ramon Foster is 30).
Big Ben has been playing some of his best football over the last three years. He’s a better decision-maker. The way he catches fire in certain games, especially at home, would make NBA Jam announcers jealous.
Still, there’s still something missing with this year’s offense. In 2015, the Steelers took the fight to everyone. Three-hundred-yard games were almost an underachievement. This year’s group sometimes slogs through road games, which could be where the Steelers would start the playoffs if they qualify.
If the Steelers lose to a Scott Tolzien-led Colts team, coach Mike Tomlin will face even more criticism in a trying year.
Regardless of how this year plays out, there aren’t enough roster holes to warrant more than relatively minor tweaks, especially on offense. But the Big Ben window won’t be open forever. If significant injury occurred, there’s no Dak Prescott waiting on the sideline.
Sneak into the playoffs through the AFC North backdoor and maybe the Steelers will show they are more resolute than many think.