We all know the Steelers of the past five years haven’t exactly been the Steelers of old. As Ben Roethlisberger has become one of the league’s most dangerous passers, Mike Tomlin and Co. have allowed Big Ben to chuck it more and more each season, no matter how un-Steeler-like it might seem to throw 40 times a game.
And though the Steel City’s beefy quarterback has come through more often than not throughout his career, bringing home two Lombardi Trophies in three Super Bowl appearances, the mounting weight upon his shoulders finally might be too much to bear.
There’s no doubt about Pittsburgh’s willingness to lean on Roethlisberger’s arm in recent years — he has dropped back to pass 35 times or more in 20 of the last 28 games in which he has played and is averaging a whopping 39.6 pass attempts in five games this season — but the Steelers haven’t given him much support in the process.
For years, the Steelers took Roethlisberger’s uncanny pocket presence and scrambling ability for granted and neglected to add top talent to the offensive line. Until 2011, Pittsburgh had drafted only one offensive lineman (Maurkice Pouncey: first round, 2010) higher than the third round since Roethlisberger entered the league in 2004.
Not surprisingly, Big Ben’s offensive front has consistently been among the most porous in the league — Pittsburgh has ranked in the top 10 in sacks allowed in every season since 2006 and Roethlisberger has been sacked almost three times per game during that span. Only once in those six years was he sacked fewer than 40 times, when he played 12 games in 2010 because of suspension and was sacked 32 times.
Yes, Roethlisberger’s style of play contributes to the high sack totals, and the team has taken efforts to beef up the QB’s protection in recent years, spending two second-round picks and two first-rounders on offensive linemen in the past three drafts. But the lack of depth behind the young talent has reared its ugly head this season in the face of several injuries (most notably rookie OG David DeCastro and Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey) and promises to make for another sack-filled campaign.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, their willingness to lean on Big Ben without providing him with proper protection might be closing Pittsburgh’s title window surprisingly quickly. Don’t look now, but Roethlisberger is already 30 years old and has been sacked more times (324) than every other active quarterback except Mark Brunell (390) and Matt Hasselbeck (336). And despite his durability and toughness to play through pain, injuries — like last year’s high ankle sprain — take away his mobility, the one thing that makes him truly a threat as a quarterback. Considering the beating he has taken and his increased weight over the years (Is there any way he actually weighs in at his listed 241 pounds?), it wouldn’t be shocking to see his career end before age 35.
In the meantime, the Steelers’ aging and nicked-up roster will be weighing down Roethlisberger’s saddlebags more than ever in 2012. The running game has been among the league’s worst, producing 75 or fewer yards in four of five games this season. Meanwhile, injuries to key defensive starters have put the onus on Big Ben to be absolutely perfect, which he hasn’t quite been.
One errant throw was enough to squander an otherwise excellent performance in the season opener, as Tracy Porter’s pick-six sealed a Broncos victory. On Thursday night in Nashville, an interception late in the first half and a missed receiver on a third-down scramble in the final minutes were costly enough to doom Pittsburgh. Even Big Ben’s near-perfect performances aren’t necessarily enough to win anymore — the Steelers fell to lowly Oakland in Week Three despite their QB completing 73.5 percent of his passes for 384 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
With the team now sitting at 2-3, its worst five-game start since 2006, don’t expect Tomlin to let up on Roethlisberger’s reins anytime soon. Sure, carrying this team is nothing new for Big Ben, but Tomlin had better be careful. He might just run his star QB into the ground.