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Starkey: Protect Ben, pay Ben

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets up off after being sacked in the fourth quarter by the Patriots' Dane Fletcher on Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, at Gillette Stadium.

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

Art Rooney II's plan made sense. It really did.

The Steelers would jettison Bruce Arians (now enjoying a wonderful retirement) and bring in a coordinator whose scheme and personality would keep Ben Roethlisberger in his place — upright in the pocket — well into his 30s.

Only it hasn't turned out that way.

Roethlisberger's steady companions are a noticeable limp and a large ice pack on his knee. He is on pace to be sacked 62 times this season, 12 more than ever before.

Knowing that, you'd think the Steelers would seek to minimize the damage at every turn. Instead, with the Patriots game well out of hand, coach Mike Tomlin amazingly, unnecessarily and irresponsibly put his quarterback in harm's way.

If Roethlisberger gets hurt there — and he easily could have — imagine the conversations we'd be having this week. Not only did he re-enter with 2:41 left and his team trailing, 55-31, he was called upon to keep passing. Andre Carter drilled him in the midsection on one play and tripped him from behind on another, leading to a ridiculous underhanded heave. Big Ben limped back to the line.

If you're going to keep your quarterback in the game, at least protect him by running the ball. CBS analyst Phil Simms called for just such a strategy, saying, “That's not giving up. That's just smart football.”

I asked Tomlin at his news conference Tuesday if he still believed he made the right call.

“I believe that,” he said. “That was an opportunity to continue to (improve). The healthy guys were going to stay on the field and play.”

OK, then what about wide receiver Antonio Brown, who did not take the field? Tomlin explained that Brown wasn't providing “quality execution from an assignment standpoint” and was benched. Great. A double whammy: Your quarterback's already a sitting duck, and you make his job more difficult — and potentially more perilous — by taking away his top target.

This wasn't the first time Tomlin sent Roethlisberger onto the freeway blindfolded. Remember the San Francisco game two years ago? Roethlisberger could barely walk, yet there he was absorbing shots late in a 20-3 loss.

Sometimes the tough and courageous thing to do is admit defeat and live to fight another day.

That obviously was not the biggest issue coming out of the game, but it served to symbolize the Steelers' failure to protect the franchise centerpiece, which, again, was the stated reason for changing coordinators.

Roethlisberger, of course, would play in a body cast if you let him. On 93.7 FM on Tuesday, he said that if Tomlin had tried to take him out, he would have refused to leave the field. That's noble, sort of. But that shouldn't be his decision. Tomlin needs to step in and call off the fight when necessary, especially now that Ben has logged more career hits than Pete Rose.

Which brings us to Landry Jones. If the plan remains to keep Ben through his mid-30s, how could a team dying for depth and talent at so many positions take a quarterback in the fourth round? Could it be, as Charlie Batch suggested to me at the time, that the Steelers might not want to give Ben another contract and view Jones and his prototypical NFL frame as a possible solution a few years down the road?

I hope not. Because that would be grounds for firing everybody in the building.

No, the plan has to be to extend Roethlisberger's contract after this season, salary cap ramifications and all, two years before his current deal expires. You simply have no chance without an elite quarterback. Ask the team that's coming in Sunday — the Buffalo Bills, who still haven't replaced Jim Kelly. Ask Art Rooney II, who saw the Steelers endure a pesky little quarter-century Super Bowl drought before Ben came along.

It'd be one thing if this offense were bereft of young talent, or if Ben were showing serious signs of deterioration. It's not, and he's not — although this hasn't been his best year. He's far too careless with the ball. But he can still play. Despite a ravaged line, no running game and few short fields since he returned from his rib injury, Ben's numbers in those nine games are highly respectable: 21 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, 88.9 passer rating.

Now, the Ben Protection Plan needs some tweaks. That could mean sitting him for the final few games. It could mean employing an even more conservative approach.

At the least, it has to mean Mike Tomlin using common sense.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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