Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Legacy, record book forever link draft mates Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 30, 2016

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PITTSBURGH -- The quarterback triumvirate of John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino from the 1983 draft might never be touched.
Ben Roethlisberger isn't about to say his 2004 class rivals it.
But the fact Roethlisberger and Eli Manning can small-talk over their combined four Super Bowl rings before Sunday's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants gives Big Ben reason to feel good about his class' legacy.
"Hopefully when our class is done, we'll have some Hall of Famers, too,"Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan on Tuesday for his weekly appearance. "There's a definite mutual respect. You kind of get excited when the other guy does well, as long as it's not against us."
Roethlisberger and Manning will face off as one of three pairs from the same draft class that won at least one Super Bowl each. The others are Joe Montana and Phil Simms from 1979 and Jim Plunkett and Joe Theismann in 1971.
Class member Philip Rivers hasn't joined that group, but his 304 career touchdown passes are eighth in NFL history and nine scores ahead of Roethlisberger, who's 10th all time. Manning tops both players with 314 scores, good enough for seventh place.
The quarterbacks have probably heard the term 'second tier' for at least parts of their career. Tom Brady and Aaron typically earn the most cachet points in recent years, despite Roethlisberger's mid-30s resurgence.
But the 137,404 passing yards among the 2004 trio are enough to fill about three draft classes.
"We'll always be linked together," Roethlisberger said.
And Roethlisberger has another head-to-head opportunity to state his case for the best of the class. Though Manning edges Roethlisberger in overall yards and scores, Roethlisberger has played 15 less games than Manning. Based on per-game average, Roethlisberger's 1.63 touchdowns and 252.7 yards per game are higher than Manning's 1.60 and 240.3.
After years of playing for a team known more for its defense, Roethlisberger's passing prowess has come to the forefront in recent seasons.
On draft night, Roethlisberger was led to believe the Giants were ready to take him. The Rivers-Manning trade complicated things. Couple that dynamic with the Cleveland Browns passing on him at No. 6 and Roethlisberger has plenty of nostalgia to fuel him.
But Roethlisberger has maintained getting the next win trumps settling scores.
Winning a third Super Bowl would make Roethlisberger the undisputed victor in this class, if he's not already.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Crosby ties it late, Penguins top Devils in shootout 4-3

By Will Graves, Associated Press
November 26, 2016
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Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (58) scores the game-winning goal against New Jersey Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid (1) during the shootout of an NHL hockey game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)
PITTSBURGH -- As the bodies piled up in front of the New Jersey net with the clock ticking toward zero and the Pittsburgh Penguins trailing by a goal, Sidney Crosby watched patiently off to the side.
Then just like that, Crosby jabbed his stick into the scrum, pulled it out and flipped it by Keith Kinkaid with 14 seconds to go, giving the Penguins the boost they needed to pull out a 4-3 shootout victory on Saturday night.
"The puck is in a bunch of feet and you hope you can eventually get a stick on it, whether it's going to jump loose and so many bodies, guys fighting for it," Crosby said. "I just tried to wait it out and was able to get a stick on it and get a shot away."
Crosby's NHL-leading 15th goal sent the game to overtime and defenseman Kris Letang picked up the only goal of the shootout, helping Pittsburgh bounce back from an ugly loss in Minnesota on Friday.
"I thought we responded the right way," Crosby said. "We had enough chances to win the game and it just took a while to finally get there."
Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel picked up his third goal in six days, and Tom Kuhnhackl earned his first goal of the season. Evgeni Malkin had three assists while extending his point streak to eight games for Pittsburgh, which outshot the Devils 49-30 and controlled play for long stretches barely 24 hours after getting pushed around in Minnesota.
Matt Murray settled down after a bumpy start and finished with 27 saves. He turned aside New Jersey's PA Parenteau, Mike Cammalleri and Travis Zajac in the shootout.
Cammalleri scored twice for the Devils and now has seven goals in his last five games. Vernon Fiddler added a short-handed goal and Kinkaid made 46 saves, but was in no position to stop Letang in the shootout.
"I thought we played a good game," Kinkaid said. "They just throw everything at the net and you just have to be aware. I thought we deserved a little bit better, but stuff like that happens."
The Penguins improved to 15-0-1 in their last 16 games following a regulation loss.
"We were resilient all night," Murray said. "We had that belief on our bench. I know I certainly did the way we were playing. I knew we were going to bury one."
Pittsburgh is in the midst of a baffling stretch of dominant performances and duds in equal measure. The latest came in a 6-2 drumming in Minnesota on Friday in which the Penguins surrendered three power-play goals and did little right, a loss that came less than 48 hours after an overwhelming 6-1 romp at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.
Searching for a spark while missing injured veterans Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan switched up the lines against the Devils, reuniting the "HBK" line of Carl HagelinNick Bonino and Phil Kesselwhile moving 40-year-old Matt Cullen alongside Crosby and Conor Sheary.
"I think he's just trying to get everybody going," Crosby said. "We had a tough game in Minnesota there and I think that's usually the best when you don't have a good game -- shake things up -- give guys a different look."
It didn't exactly light a fire early on. Save for a brief 75-second flurry in the second period when Guentzel tapped in a rebound and Kuhnhackl scored his first regular-season goal since April, the Penguins were susceptible to New Jersey's effective counterpunching.
Murray let in a bad goal when Fiddler flipped a backhand breakaway between the goaltender's legs for New Jersey's second short-handed goal of the season 4 minutes into the second. Cammalleri drilled a one-timer by Murray 9:19 into the second to put the Devils back in front.
It looked as if it would hold up in the final seconds when Crosby did what he has done so often. The two-time MVP has 15 goals in 16 games.
Game notes
The Penguins gave Devils D Ben Lovejoy and F Beau Bennett their Stanley Cup rings before the game. The two helped the franchise to its fourth championship last spring. Lovejoy signed as a free agent in the offseason while New Jersey acquired Bennett in a draft-day trade. ... Pittsburgh went 0 for 5 on the power play. The Devils were 1 for 2.
Devils: Continue a four-game road trip in Winnipeg on Tuesday.
Penguins: Visit the New York Islanders on Wednesday. Pittsburgh is 2-0 against New York so far this season.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Big Ben, Brown humble Colts

By Kevin Gorman
November 25, 2016

Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers beats Vontae Davis #21 of the Indianapolis Colts to make a touchdown catch during the second quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — Their connection can be complex: The quarterback who extends plays and the wide receiver who finishes them; one as plain as his Midwest roots, the other as flamboyant as his Miami hometown.
The answer to their success is rather simple.
Ask their Steelers teammates how Ben Roethlisberger finds Antonio Brown so open so often for so many touchdowns, and they shrug their shoulders and say the same thing over and over.
That's Ben. That's AB.
The Indianapolis Colts wished they had such simple answers for Roethlisberger and Brown, who connected for three touchdowns in the Steelers' 28-7 victory Thursday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We move him around a lot,” Roethlisberger said of Brown. “We move him to slots, strong side, weak side and just kind of have to eyeball everything else and see what they give us when we move him around.
“When we can take advantage of the single coverage or them trying to cut and do some other things, you've just got to put it close to him and let him do the rest.”
After passing for 886 yards and 10 touchdowns in his past two games against the Colts, Roethlisberger completed 14 of 20 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns for an impressive 146.0 rating.
Brown caught five of those for 91 yards and the three scores.
“It's definitely amazing doing it on Thanksgiving,” Brown said. “I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity to be able to catch three touchdowns in a game. It's an honor playing with Ben – he's always putting me in a great position, making some great throws – and grateful to do it on a great stage like this, and it felt even better to get a win.”
For the Colts, it was a guessing game. First, they had to discover where Brown would line up. Then, they had to figure out when Roethlisberger would take advantage of cornerback Vontae Davis' bum ankle and, later, groin.
“AB always gets open. He does great things all the time,” wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “He works hard and deserves everything he gets. That's AB.”
Big Ben and AB connected on their first scoring play in the first quarter, on a third and 5 at the Indianapolis 25. Roethlisberger saw single coverage against Davis and a safety coming in late and caught the Colts with a back-shoulder throw to Brown for a touchdown and 14-0 lead.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano called it a “great throw and catch between the quarterback and the wideout,” singling out Brown as a weapon.
“He is as good a player as there is in the National Football League,” Pagano said. “He is a dynamic football player and has been a thorn in our side and a lot of other people's sides for a long time.”
The second came after Roethlisberger hit tight end Ladarius Green — his newest favorite toy — on a third and 13 for a 32-yard pass along the left sideline. Two plays later, Brown burned Davis again for a 33-yard touchdown and 21-7 lead with nine minutes left in the first half.
“We did a play-action, got the perfect coverage for it and just threw it out and let him make the play,” Roethlisberger said.
Just when it started to look like the Steelers could do that all night, they mysteriously opted to take the air out of the ball in the second half. Behind a line that pushed the Colts around and kept Roethlisberger upright, the Steelers handed it repeatedly to running back Le'Veon Bell, who finished with a game-high 120 yards on 23 carries, and didn't target Brown again until the fourth quarter.
If it was a matter of keeping the ball out of Andrew Luck's hands, that would have made more sense. But Luck was out with a concussion, and backup Scott Tolzien led the Colts on two drives deep into Steelers territory before a pair of fourth-down stops at the 1 saved them.
Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Steelers returned to Brown. It paid dividends when Roethlisberger found Brown on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining to seal it. Roethlisberger said he called an audible in the huddle and told Brown to run an out-and-up.
“We saw something earlier where they were jumping that,” Roethlisberger said, “and I wanted to get them on that.”
Brown couldn't have been more wide open, catching a 22-yarder to mark the first time in his career he had three touchdown catches in a game. It also marked his 100th consecutive game with a catch and his fourth consecutive season with at least 80 receptions, tying Hines Ward.
“I appreciate it. I don't take it for granted, but I'm not surprised by it,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Brown. “He's a hard, diligent worker and talented guy. He maximizes his opportunities.”
Of course, so does Roethlisberger. It marked the 41st time he has thrown three touchdowns in a regular-season game, his third straight such game against the Colts and his 74th regular-season game with a passer rating of 100.0 or better. No surprise that the Steelers are 66-8 in such games.
What's even more amazing is that Roethlisberger and Brown now have combined on 48 touchdown passes, one shy of the Steelers record set by Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann. That's pretty select company, considering both are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“That speaks volumes to be in the same category as those guys,” Roethlisberger said. “That's pretty awesome. Those guys are considered some of the best to ever play these positions, especially on this team. I know, for me, it's humbling.”
The Colts could say the same about Ben and AB, a tandem whose success is as simple as stopping them can be complicated.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

Dramatic goal-line stops give Steelers win over Colts -- and much more

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 25, 2016

Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts is tackled by Anthony Chickillo #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS -- These are the games that can embolden a team. No matter how imperfect the performance or how much the other team aids the cause, the sensation of dramatic playmaking can permeate the locker room for a late-season push.
Twice on Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts lined up at the goal line with four downs at their disposal. Eight downs and no points. The Pittsburgh Steelers made sure of that by holding firm on two fourth-and-1s and letting the offense handle the rest in a 28-7 win at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Suddenly, the Steelers (6-5) are looking like the team everyone expected in the preseason. Two straight road wins are significant -- even against the lowly Browns and maligned Colts.
"That's Steeler defense," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons of the goal-line stops. "That's what we need."
They need physicality, which they showcased in abundance Thursday night.
It takes resolve to let a team drive 19 plays, 89 yards and 11-plus minutes well into the early fourth quarter and still stop it inches from the end zone. From the 1, Scott Tolzien threw a pass that an outstretched Phillip Dorsett couldn't handle with Timmons tight in coverage.
In the earlier stop, late in the second quarter, safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis traded turns thwarting the Colts. Davis tackled a diving Tolzien on third down by the goal line -- he had the run-or-pass option in coverage -- and Mitchell disrupted pass coverage over the middle on fourth down.
This was undoubtedly Mitchell's best game of the year, and he sealed it with an interception on a deep ball that he returned 26 yards. For a defense that has struggled mightily at times this season -- including run-stopping, which is traditionally a strength -- the goal-line stops were timely, even if the Colts committed several drops throughout the game.
The Steelers are starting to feel like themselves again on defense, recovering from what Timmons called "on-and-off performances" in the fall.
Players in the locker room referenced several big hits on Colts playmakers that seemed to wear them down.
"We love hard hits," Davis said. "We love smart, clean hits. When we get the chance to unleash and hit people, we get pumped up."
Ben Roethlisberger capitalized on Mitchell's pick with a 22-yard strike to Antonio Brown for the wide receiver's third touchdown. That capped a back-to-form night for the offense, reminiscent of the 38-point road showing at Washington in Week 1.
The Steelers turned conservative while maintaining their lead and ran the ball on 25 of their first 45 offensive plays. You can get away with that when Roethlisberger is averaging 11 yards per attempt (221 yards on 14 completions and 20 throws). Plus, Brown and Le'Veon Bell finally got help! Ladarius Green had his welcome-to-the-Steelers moment with 67 receiving yards.
Roethlisberger called the offense's performance "efficient." He was also beaming over his offensive line play, which didn't allow a sack and created holes for 148 rushing yards.
"When they play great, we're all great," Roethlisberger said.
Tolzien wasn't a disaster in relief, as he challenged the Steelers downfield. The Steelers' plan was to stop the run and basically dare Tolzien to beat them. He flirted with that plan. But the Steelers are finally getting splash plays when they need them. That's 11 sacks in the past two weeks and two interceptions Thursday.
The youth movement is working -- for now. The trio of top draft picks Artie Burns, Davis and Javon Hargrave sharing the same starting lineup has helped the Steelers win two straight. Hargrave has sacks in back-to-back games.
In an uncertain AFC North, the Steelers have effectively applied December pressure on Baltimore.
"Everyone was down on us saying, 'Oh, we stink,'" Mitchell said about the scene after the Week 10 loss to the Cowboys to drop to 4-5. "You just have to block that noise out and keep going to work. That’s what our leader, coach [Mike] Tomlin, does, and we just follow that mindset."

Punchless Colts squander chances, lose to Steelers -- again

By Bob Kravitz
November 25, 2016

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Scott Tolzien is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers' Sean Davis during the first half of an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Welcome, America, to Andrew Luck’s life.
The population of Central Indiana knows it all too well, but now America knows, and Lord knows, now Scott Tolzien knows: Andrew Luck is surrounded by, um, what’s a nice word for it?
Let’s go with this, just to be delicate: Nothing.
On a night when the Colts were overwhelmed by the Pittsburgh Steelers – again – 28-7, America saw why the Colts are currently a monument to mediocrity. America saw why the only chances the Colts have to reach the playoffs are A) a Texans’ implosion and B) Andrew Luck.
When Luck isn’t behind center, eluding pass rushers and running for his life and making big throws downfield, the Colts are a rancid excuse for a team with post-season aspirations. Put it this way: If Tolzien had any help whatsoever -- if his team could run the ball, if his team could catch the ball, if his team could protect the passer, if his team could slow down Antonio Brown – he might have had his Clint Longley Thanksgiving moment Sunday night.
Give the Colts’ backup all kinds of credit: He stayed in there against a fearsome pass rush, made throws while under duress and twice got the Colts to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. He was not the reason, not at all, why the Colts got rolled Sunday night. He was good enough; more than good enough, hanging tough despite three sacks and 11 quarterback hits.
There was a lot to like, too, about the offensive game plan: Take shots downfield against a Steelers’ pass defense that was ranked 26th in the league. And the plays were there, but time after time after time, the Colts’ receivers dropped passes. It was T.Y. Hilton on a deep ball that might have gone for a touchdown. There was a pass to Donte Moncrief that would have given Indy the ball at the 2-yard line. There was a TD pass to Phillip Dorsett, a tough catch but the kind a first-round pick should made, that he saw drop to the ground.
“I thought Scott (Tolzien) gave us a chance,’’ Pagano said. “I thought he played his ass off. He is one tough son of a gun. He hung in there and hung in there and made some really tough throws and took some shots along the way. I’m very proud of that kid.’’ He gave the Colts a chance Sunday night, and then the Colts dropped that chance. Over and over again.
“We (the receivers) take pride in not dropping the ball,’’ said T.Y. Hilton, who hammered himself for his own drop on a pass that might have led to a touchdown. “Those are plays we make 11 out of 10 times.’’
Eleven out of 10?
OK, you know what he means.
Except he’s wrong. The Colts now lead the NFL in dropped passes. Number one. With a bullet.
“It just crushes you,’’ Pagano said of the drops plague.
Look, this was going to be a steep hill to climb even before the night began. The Colts survived without Luck last season, but this team is extraordinarily reliant on its quarterback. Indy was also missing safety Clayton Geathers, another guy with a concussion. Then the game-day injuries started: Center Ryan Kelly went out with a shoulder injury. Denzelle Good, the right guard, was out and then in and then back out again with an injury. Vontae Davis injured his groin, and his ego, after getting burned deep a second time by Colts-killer Antonio Brown. Hilton hurt his lower back after a monstrous hit by Pittsburgh’s Mike Mitchell. And then, just to make the ignominy complete, Robert Mathis went out with an injury.
It was especially galling to watch Brown make plays all over the field, inspiring the question, “Why won’t the Colts provide the cornerback any help while covering the best wide receiver in the league?’’ Time after time, a gimpy Davis was left alone on an island with Brown. Then it was Rashaan Melvin. And the results were not pretty, Brown scoring three long touchdowns.
I asked Melvin whether there was supposed to be some help for the beleaguered corners. “Yes, sir,’’ he said. “We were supposed to help, but we didn’t execute.’’
On a night when the Colts needed to be perfect, they were monumentally imperfect, darned close to awful. They left at least 14 points on the field, and possibly 17 if you count Adam Vinatieri’s miss from 52 yards (and we’re not going to trash Vinatieri for missing from 52, especially when the Colts foolishly went for the deep ball on third and one and ended up watching Tolzien get sacked).
Luck’s absence had nothing to do with the defense, which got ripped off the top for 21 points on just 21 Steelers’ plays. Indy came into this game with the stated goal of slowing down Brown, keeping Le’Veon Bell in check and getting off the field on third downs.
Grades? F, F, and F.
Brown had five catches on six targets, 91 yards and three touchdowns.
Bell ran 23 times for 120 yards, a 5.2 yard-per-carry average, and scored a touchdown.
And the Steelers were a gaudy 7-of-11 on third-down conversions.
Get this: The Colts did not sack Ben Roethlisberger once and managed just one quarterback hit the entire game -- which, for whatever it’s worth, is an improvement on their last meeting when the Colts put up a giant donut in those categories.
Good coaches, good defensive teams, make opposing teams play left-handed, force the offense to beat them with their second- and third-best players. It’s what the Patriots have done since time immemorial, taking away the offense’s most dangerous weapon and saying, “Fine, if you can beat us with your lesser lights, we’ll live with it.’’ Somebody tell me, when’s the last time the Colts took away an offense’s best player?
“I don’t know what the Colts are doing (defensively),’’ TV analyst Cris Collinsworth said during the broadcast.
Not sure the Colts knew, either.
Once again, this team revealed itself as a soft outfit, consistently getting pushed around at the line of scrimmage. When things got tough, the Colts cowered in a corner.
Trailing 21-7 late in the second quarter, the Colts had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Frank Gore got stuffed out of the Wildcat. Gore gained a half yard on second down. Third down, Tolzien appeared to have a chance to score on a designed run, but the tripped on the turf and was tackled at the ½ yard line. And on fourth down, the Colts ONCE AGAIN went to an empty backfield and Tolzien threw incomplete.
Fast forward to late in the third quarter, and it happened again. First and goal at the 6-yard line. Robert Turbin, short gain. Gore, short gain. A QB draw, short gain. Fourth and goal at the 1, incomplete.
Hilton said it better than I ever will.
“If you can’t make one yard, you don’t belong in the NFL,’’ he said.
A few minutes earlier, Hilton was sitting at his locker, painfully and painstakingly putting on his turquoise sneakers. He bent over at the waist to put on his right shoe.
“Uggggh,’’ he said.
He bent over at the waist to put on his left shoe.
“Uggggh,’’ he said. “(Bleep).’’
Painful night. Painful result.
This wasn’t a season-killer, not just yet, but the margin for error is next to nothing. The Colts must go 4-1 or 5-0 down the stretch to have a shot at the AFC South, and they’re going to need some help from the less-than-inspiring Houston Texans. Now they must get Luck back and hope he’s got a trick up his sleeve because without him, they are a dreadful football team.
We’ve known that for quite some time.
Now America knows.
Want more from Bob Kravitz? Subscribe to the Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Will Steelers maximize Ben Roethlisberger's championship window?

Jeremy FowlerESPN Staff Writer 24, 2016
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.
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.
On offense, the suspension of Martavis Bryant, the hand injury to Sammie Coates and limited early returns from $20 million free agent signee Ladarius Green have left the Steelers without an adequate third offensive option behind Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, both of whom will want new contracts in the offseason.
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.