Kevin Gorman: Steelers have done everything to make this Ben Roethlisberger’s team
From an outside perspective, this will be remembered as the offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers parted ways with a pair of All-Pro players in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
The Steelers prefer another narrative: This is the year they banked on Ben Roethlisberger, not only by giving their franchise quarterback a two-year, $68-million contract extension through 2021 but also locking up his offensive line.
When the Steelers report to training camp Thursday at Saint Vincent, they do so as Big Ben’s team in every way imaginable. Not that it ever was secret, but Roethlisberger now has more job security than general manager Kevin Colbert or coach Mike Tomlin, whose contracts run through 2020.
It comes with one condition: win a Super Bowl.
Roethlisberger already has won the Lombardi Trophy twice, so he knows what it takes. But, as Colbert cautioned quite honestly, Roethlisberger has 52 kids under him.
No other Steelers player has ever won a Super Bowl. Only one, guard Ramon Foster, played in their last Super Bowl appearance (center Maurkice Pouncey was injured). No wonder the Steelers prioritized extending Pouncey and preventing Foster from testing free agency by signing both this offseason.
So, the Steelers are betting big on Big Ben. He’s 37 but coming off a season that saw him lead the NFL in attempts (675), completions (452), passing yards (5,129) and interceptions (16) — a number that can be tied largely to his attempts — and throw a career-best 34 touchdowns.
Yet the Steelers finished 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs.
It’s easy to dismiss the departures of Bell and Brown, given that the Steelers never got to a Super Bowl with them let alone won another world championship. But you can’t deny that they were workhorses who were arguably the NFL’s best players at their positions and added a different dimension to the offense.
We go in circles about whether the presence of Roethlisberger allowed Bell and Brown to shine statistically or if it was the other way around. The Steelers gave us their answer when they traded Brown to the Oakland Raiders for draft picks and allowed Bell to become a free agent and sign with the New York Jets.
It’s hard to argue that the Steelers are better offensively without Bell and Brown, even if they addressed the depth at their positions. The Steelers are counting on James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to play at a Pro Bowl level once again and banking for a better balance behind them.
That’s asking a lot.
What the Steelers shouldn’t be doing is expecting Roethlisberger to be a superhero. He’s closer to the twilight of his career than his prime, no matter the numbers. And he appears to have taken the harsh criticism about his leadership from NFL analysts and friendly fire from former teammates to heart.
That’s why the Steelers were wise to invest in defense, to trade up for and draft Devin Bush at inside linebacker. The Steelers have won six Super Bowls because of their defense, and they learned in their last playoff appearance against the Jacksonville Jaguars that it doesn’t matter how many points they put on the scoreboard if they can’t stop an opponent from scoring.
But there is no mistaking that this team is built around Big Ben. The Steelers had one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL with the Killer Bs, and only Roethlisberger remains. The Steelers are hoping that better balance on offense and a more dynamic defense can do what the superstars couldn’t.
Roethlisberger still has something to prove, as he has to show that the Steelers still run the AFC North and he finally can lead them past Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the playoffs.
Whether it’s winning with his 15 seasons and two Super Bowls of experience, what Colbert called his “unquestioned” leadership or what remains of his passing and playmaking ability, the big question is whether Roethlisberger can lead the Steelers to another Super Bowl without Bell and Brown.
We’re about to find out.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .