Kevin Gorman: When Big Ben speaks, Steelers should listen
Ben Roethlisberger is right, even if it sounds wrong.
Fifteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and two Super Bowl championships in a Hall of Fame-caliber career has earned him the choice of whether to be complimentary or critical of his teammates.
“I would hope that they would understand that as the quarterback and the captain that I have the right to do those things,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t feel like I abuse that situation, so I don’t think it’s an issue.”
Of course, it comes with the caveat that Big Ben has to first be willing to point the finger at the man in the mirror before he puts anyone on blast. And that’s something he’s refused to do since the Denver debacle.
That’s why Roethlisberger publicly ripping everyone from receivers Antonio Brown and James Washington to the play-calling of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner this week has raised eyebrows — even inside the Steelers locker room.
“You take it for what it is, man,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “Everybody has different ways to encourage guys or to get guys going. You hear what he has to say, whether it’s in front of you or in the media, and you just try to get better because each and every day is a battle for every guy in here to prove themselves, not only to the coaching staff but to your teammates.”
It’s also an accountability issue, one that starts with Roethlisberger. The Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos on an interception in the end zone, a pass for which Big Ben blamed everything but himself. It was all excuses, from Maurkice Pouncey’s snap and block to Brown’s drifting in the back of the end zone. Not the decision or the throw.
It’s instructive to remember Roethlisberger, whether it’s in his weekly radio show on 93.7 FM or meeting with the media, rarely says anything without intent. There’s always an underlying message, a method of motivation.
“Being around for a long time with a lot of different players, you have to know how to motivate different guys in different ways,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that’s part of being a leader, being a captain, just understanding players. Sometimes you just grab them off to the side, and sometimes you have to be honest with them.”
Remember that Roethlisberger, two games removed from a perfect passer rating, completed 41 of 56 passes for 462 yards – only to have tight end Xavier Grimble fumble out of the end zone, Washington drop a pass in his hands and James Conner fumble deep in Denver territory. Maybe this is Big Ben’s way of saying that game should have never come down to the final play.
It’s one thing to hold a rookie like Washington to his second-round pedigree, another to blame Brown for his route running on the final play. But to suggest not only is JuJu Smith-Schuster a No. 1 receiver but so are tight end Vance McDonald, slot receiver Ryan Switzer and Conner had to be designed to get a rise out of All-Pro Brown.
Not that Brown needs any motivation. He carries his sixth-round selection status like a boulder on his shoulder. But the Steelers are at their best when Ben and Brown are clicking, like they did against Carolina. Something in their timing is off, as evidenced by connecting on only 58.2 percent of targeted passes. Brown was targeted on nine of Roethlisberger’s 12 interceptions.
“Maybe it’s his way of challenging guys, letting them know we’re not perfect as a team,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “I guess, more or less, it’s that he sees the opportunity. Whether he’s talking to them directly or through the media, we need to realize that we’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Maybe that’s because Roethlisberger knows he might not be the best 36-year-old quarterback at Heinz Field on Sunday night, not with the way Philip Rivers is playing. Big Ben knows that he will need all of his teammates at their best to beat the Chargers, especially Brown.
That’s why the Steelers know what to do when Big Ben talks.
“You listen,” Foster said. “It resonates in a major way because he’s the guy that controls where the ball goes.”
And this is Roethlisberger’s way of wanting it to go to the right team.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.