Kevin Gorman: Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger not focused on stats
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for 300 yards or more in each of the first three games, something the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback had never previously done to start a season.
What should be the twilight of his 15-year NFL career has instead seen Roethlisberger respond with personal-record performances, more out of necessity for a team that can’t seem to stop opposing offenses.
Passing for 353 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers’ 30-27 victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football earned Roethlisberger AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors, but he’s focused on a different set of numbers: The Steelers’ 1-1-1 record.
“Honestly, I’d rather be 3-0 and not throw for 300. For me, it’s always about winning and losing,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “But I also think that’s the direction offenses are going and games are going. You look at the number of points that are being scored and I think you’ve got to keep up with the Joneses, if you will.”
For Big Ben, it’s been about keeping up with the Mahomeses and Fitzpatricks, if you will.
Patrick Mahomes threw for 326 yards and six scoring passes, outplaying Roethlisberger even as he rallied the Steelers from a 21-point, first-quarter deficit by passing for 452 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick, conversely, came up short after leading the Bucs back from a 20-point halftime deficit by passing for 411 yards and three scores.
Roethlisberger ranks second in the NFL in passing yards, yet is rankled more that the Steelers didn’t start the season 3-0 as their schedule suggested they would. Instead, they are tied with the Cleveland Browns (again) for last place in the AFC North.
“Well, we’ve only got one win,” Roethlisberger said. “To me and the offense and Randy (Fichtner), it’s not about stats. It’s about winning and losing. We didn’t put up any goals this year, in terms of points or yards or where we wanted to rank. We just wanted to win football games. So, to have only one win, I would say offensively we’re not doing our job.”
That’s the paradox and predicament for the Steelers, who are relying upon Roethlisberger more than ever. He’s responded with one of the best statistical starts to his career, and Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle believes Big Ben is aging like a fine wine.
“I’ve seen him for a lot of years and each year he’s getting better and better it seems, as he’s getting up there in age. Age is just a number, I guess, with him,” Weddle said. “So, he’s just in full control and when they protect him and he gets in those runs, man, he’s one of the best to do it. So it’s fun to watch as a fan of football but when you’re getting ready to play against him, it keeps you up late at night trying to figure out ways to make it hard on him and make it tough.”
That’s the Catch-22. It’s evident that throwing the ball at high volume is not the Steelers’ formula for success. This is the new-age NFL, however, and the game has placed a premium on its passers. Where dropping the quarterback used to be celebrated with sack dances, it’s now drawing protests following unnecessary roughness penalties.
Passing might produce points and eye-popping statistics, but the Steelers are 7-7 in games when Roethlisberger throws for 400 yards or more — and three of those wins came in his 500-yard performances.
One of those came on Sunday Night Football against the Ravens last December, when Roethlisberger completed 44 of 66 passes — both career highs — for 506 yards and two touchdowns. Yet that game, second only to his 522-yard game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2014, saw the Steelers’ 14-point lead evaporate into an 11-point deficit and required a last-minute field goal for a 39-38 victory.
That leads to these questions: Can the Steelers afford to rely so heavily upon Roethlisberger’s right arm? Worse yet, with the state of their defense, can they afford not to believe Big Ben is their best bet?
“When you have a special quarterback like Ben it makes it even more so to do offensively, that, why not? Right? Why not trust your quarterback?” Weddle said. “He’s been a Super Bowl champion, and you trust that he’s going to make the right decision with the ball and you roll with it. And he’s shown, obviously, through three games and throughout his whole career when he has to bring teams back or they get down, he can do it with the best of them.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh complimented Roethlisberger for having “total control” and a “complete grasp” of the offense, but also reminded that the Steelers ran at will against the Ravens in Baltimore last year. Le’Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries, and the Steelers rushed for 173 total yards in the 26-9 victory.
The Steelers abandoned the run early the past two games, out of necessity against the Chiefs and out of luxury against the Bucs. James Conner’s fourth-quarter runs of 27 and 32 yards helped the Steelers seal the win, as Roethlisberger passed for only 36 yards in the fourth quarter and 80 yards in a scoreless second half for the Steelers.
Big Ben knows as well as anyone that a balanced offense is better, especially when it comes to protecting a lead, and that throwing the ball too much is typically a sign the Steelers are in trouble.
The record Roethlisberger should be chasing against the Ravens is to get the Steelers to 2-1-1 and atop the AFC North. Anything else is just a passing fancy, not the best use of Big Ben’s fancy passing.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.