Big Ben has quietly been having one of his best seasons behind a revolving door of an offensive line.
It’s nothing new for the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who has carried the Steelers' offense in years past.
This is the kind of thing that earns quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady a lot of praise, but for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, it isn’t a good thing.
Roethlisberger’s two best seasons were 2007 (32 TD, 11 INT) and 2009 (4,328 YDS, 26 TD).
However, those were two of the Steelers' worst seasons, finishing 10-6 and 9-7 respectively. Not that bad in the grand scheme of things, but they are two of the worst records the Steelers have posted since Roethlisberger became the starter in 2004.
The only worse record was in 2006 following Big Ben’s run in with a minivan (literally – face, meet minivan).
What this means is that when Big Ben gets going, it’s usually because they are relying too heavily on the passing game.
Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey
The only thing that makes me grade the Steelers' running game marginally below average is the past two games. Jonathan Dwyer is the first Steeler running back to post back to back 100-yard games since Willie Parker in 2008. On a team that made its way in the league by holding to the “ground-and-pound” philosophy, it’s understandable that they are struggling to find their groove.
An injury in the final game of last season to starter Rashard Mendenhall left the team looking for a replacement. Until Dwyer made an impact in the last couple of games, the Steelers struggled to get anything going on the ground.
Even with Dwyer’s surge, the Steelers are only ranked 21st in rushing. It’s no secret that the NFL has become a passing league, so it will be quite a transition away from what has made Pittsburgh one of the most successful franchises in the last 10 years.
WIDE RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Heath Miller
Like Ben Roethlisberger, the receiving corps of the Pittsburgh Steelers is quietly having a good year. Ranked 7th in the league, the trio of Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders has developed a great chemistry with Roethlisberger, especially when he extends the play outside the pocket.
The Steelers are the best team in the league on 3rd down, mostly because when Ben extends the play, the receivers know how to get open.
Heath Miller, one of the most steady tight ends in the league, is also having a good season (good thing I picked him up in my fantasy league) with 35 receptions, 336 yards and 6 touchdowns.
He’s as reliable a target as they come and is on pace to have a career year. Ironically, much like Roethlisberger, his two best seasons also came in 2007 (47 REC, 7 TD) and 2009 (76 REC, 6 TD).
Grade: E (For Effort)
Okay, I’ll actually give them a C because injuries have destroyed what it in actuality a very talented group. The Steelers have lost both top pick David DeCastro, and center Maurkice Pouncey to knee injuries and haven’t been able to effectively replace them.
Controlling the line of scrimmage is paramount to what the Steelers do on offense, and without it they will continue to struggle down the stretch. Luckily, Pouncey – widely considered one of, if not the best center in the league – should be returning soon and is listed as probable for Sunday’s game against the Giants.
Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Casey Hampton, Cameron Heyward
The Steelers' defense is taking a lot of flak this season for several reasons – age, injury, you name it. While the defensive line may not be the youngest bunch, they have been able to rotate a few guys who are able to get into the backfield effectively.
While the defensive line hasn’t accumulated too many sacks, they are still having an effect on the quarterback. The overall defense is ranked first in the league in opposing passing yards and ninth in opposing rushing yards, so while they may not have the state to back it up, they are still playing their part.
LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Larry Foote, Jason Worilds
If Penn State is “Linebacker U”, the Pittsburgh Steelers are “Linebacker Pro.” Youth may not be on their side (avg. age of 26) but their super bowl experience makes this linebacking unit one of the most effective in football.
Cutting ties with long-time captain James Farrior in the offseason left this line backing corp. a little uncertain, but they have played nicely despite missing James Harrison for the first four games of the season.
Much like their “ground-and-pound” methodology on offense, the Steelers under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have used a “bend-don’t-break” strategy on defense.
This year they are a little less bend and a little more break. Their overall problem has been red-zone defense where their linebackers have trouble covering the flat that comes more into play inside the 20 yard line.
If the linebackers could get a little more help from the secondary, they could have an easier time in the red-zone.
This one is pretty simple. The Steelers’ secondary desperately misses Troy Polamalu. Unlike any other player in the league, Polamalu gives the Steelers' defense a dynamic that is impossible to recreate.
He can play up in the box and still cover down the field, he can line up 10 yards deep and still make the tackle on a screen pass, and he can cover anyone from a receiver to a running back to a tight end.
Without Polamalu, they only have Ike Taylor (Swagger) and Ryan Clarke to rely on. While they are both quality defensive backs, they are no Polamalu. What they have sorely missed the last two seasons have been turnovers, as the secondary has only one interception so far this season.
Like the linebackers, they face their toughest challenges in the red-zone, where they have given up the bulk of their points all year.
With the problems the Steelers have in the running game and offensive line, field position becomes a much more serious game. Chris Rainey came into his rookie season with a lot of people drooling over his speed, some comparing him to Percy Harvin, but with the exception of a few breaks, he has yet to live up to it.
Antonio Brown, serving as the primary punt returner, spends too much time trying to “wiggle” his way out of tackles to gain many yards. If he would learn to run up-field instead of trying to dance, he could use his speed more effectively.
Shaun Suisham has been a rock at kicker, missing only one field goal all season which was a 50+ yard kick against Tennessee. With the swirling winds that come through Heinz Field in the fall and winter, it will be even more important that Suisham continue to be consistent.
Mike Tomlin (HC), Dick LeBeau (DC), Todd Haley (OC)
It’s hard for me to give the Steelers’ coaching staff anything less than an A because they are one of the most well respected organizations in the league.
Despite his age (75), LeBeau has been able to adapt his defense over the years and mold them into one of the most consistent and feared units in the NFL. The Hall-of-Famer is able to combine old school smash-mouth philosophies with new age strategies, and is one of the best at keeping offenses guessing when it comes to the blitz.
Todd Haley was hired as the offensive coordinator after being fired as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and he got off to a bit of a rocky start. Offseason reports indicated that Haley was not communicating his new offensive schemes with Ben Roethlisberger and this may have made Big Ben uncomfortable.
While Roethlisberger has since denied having such feelings, it was pretty clear early on that this may be a more complicated transition than they once thought.
Mike Tomlin may take the prize for the coolest head coach in the league. He always brings a sense of confidence to the field that radiates to his team “we’re going to win.”
It may not always be true, but even in a losing effort; Tomlin is always confident and proud of what his players do on the field. Were this team – with all of the changes and injuries – led by anyone else but Mike Tomlin, you’d be looking at a 2-5 team right now.