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Steelers' Big Ben challenge: Balance ticking clock with eye on future

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Steelers using Rudolph to motivate Big Ben? (2:00)

Tedy Bruschi suspects that the Steelers got the response they were seeking from Ben Roethlisberger after the QB expressed his shock over the drafting of Mason Rudolph. (2:00)

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger saves some of his most explosive quotes for his in-season weekly radio show. When he joined 93.7 the Fan for an impromptu session just six days after the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted a quarterback who might one day replace him, he came out firing like a deep out to Antonio Brown.

Just about everyone got mic-checked:

  • The Steelers, who surprised Roethlisberger by taking a quarterback instead of someone who can "help this team now."

  • Third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph, whose remark after the draft that it's not Roethlisberger's job to teach him prompted the veteran QB to pull away, saying with a laugh: "...he said he doesn't need me. If he asks me a question, I might just have to point to the playbook." Roethlisberger eventually said he'd answer the rookie.

  • Even opposing quarterbacks weren't safe, with Roethlisberger noting the massive money given to signal-callers around the league "whether they've proven it or not."

The session left much to unpack about a star player's relationship with a storied franchise, football immortality at the game's most important position and how quarterback transitions aren't always smooth.

The notion of a starter reacting strongly to a new guy entering the quarterback room is hardly new ground. Brett Favre wasn't much of a mentor to Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady's presence loomed large in the New England Patriots' decision to trade Jimmy Garoppolo.

While some fans might see the comments as cold, a former teammate sees something heavier at play with a 36-year-old.

"He's still in his prime, he knows the clock is ticking and he wants to win a third Super Bowl," said Trai Essex, part of two Super Bowls as a Steelers offensive lineman from 2005 to 2011. "He's not going to beat around the bush. He'll tell you how he feels. Why does he need to toe the company line? When I was there, he was nothing but the epitome of a great teammate. He puts everything on the line every week, so you go to battle with that guy."

More motivation

Technically, the Rudolph pick is the Steelers' chance to examine a potential down-the-road starter as insurance in case Roethlisberger retires, gets injured or experiences an unforeseen decline in play.

Subtly, it wasn't lost on the franchise that the Rudolph selection might fire up Roethlisberger, who already enters a de facto contract year.

For as well as Roethlisberger played at the end of the 2017 season -- averaging almost 350 passing yards and three touchdowns per game over the final seven outings -- the Steelers know players are at their best when pushed, even if Rudolph won't actually push him for playing time any time soon.

The franchise drafting quarterbacks in consecutive years has the attention of Roethlisberger, who publicly flirted with retirement last offseason.

Josh Dobbs, a fourth-round pick in 2017, sees the Rudolph acquisition as "another opportunity to have competition."

As if chasing the franchise's seventh Super Bowl and a new deal in his late 30s wasn't motivation enough, Roethlisberger can manufacture more of it if he chooses to feel overlooked or slighted by the Rudolph pick. That's a well-worn formula for many great athletes, and one Roethlisberger utilized early in his career after getting drafted behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in 2004.

Drafting a quarterback won't change the Steelers' plans to build around him, general manager Kevin Colbert said.

"We're never going to lose sight of making sure we can compete each and every year," he said.

Always know where he stands

The Steelers aren't about to respond to Roethlisberger's words publicly. That's not their style, plus they are used to his pointed comments. For example, he was critical of Brown for last year's Gatorade cooler flare-up and has subtly criticized coaching in the past.

Essex believes the Steelers organization is successful in part because of the way it handles different personalities, and even if players have mixed emotions about Roethlisberger's comments, they always know where he stands.

"This isn't their first rodeo dealing with Ben. He knows what to expect from the Steelers," Essex said. "They take care of him. They talk to him. They wouldn't shy away from approaching him if they need to. It's been a great relationship for these 15-odd years. (Roethlisberger) talks. He's candid. It's no secret to (Mike) Tomlin, who coaches the same way. You always know where he stands as a player."

The criticisms will pass as long as Roethlisberger keeps playing well and the Steelers' offense keeps churning.

The Steelers are counting on that, with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner publicly hoping for four to six more years from Big Ben and Colbert diffusing any attention with post-draft praise of his veteran quarterback.

"If (drafting Roethlisberger in 2004) wasn't the case, who knows what would have happened because, obviously, without Ben, we're probably not winning as many Super Bowls as we've been able to," Colbert said.

Look to Brees for contract clues

A new contract would turn Roethlisberger's current $20-million-per-year clip into a steep discount. The quarterback market has ballooned almost 50 percent since Roethlisberger signed his five-year, $99 million contract in 2015.

Roethlisberger said on the radio that "Aaron Rodgers is probably licking his lips right now" after the Atlanta Falcons finalized Matt Ryan's $150 million contract last week. Rodgers and the Packers are negotiating this offseason, setting the table nicely for Roethlisberger the following year.

"To me, there are more important pieces that need to be taken care of beside myself," said Roethlisberger, who is a free agent in 2020, during his show. "I've got two years left, this one and one more. I want to go out and do the best I can. To me, it's about addressing it next year. But if they want to talk and address something this year, we will obviously talk and listen."

Roethlisberger's financial outlook could look similar to Drew Brees' in recent years.

In his late 30s, Brees has signed a pair of two-year deals that pay out roughly $25 million per year, with the 39-year-old admitting in March that he could have held out for more.

QB inflation would push Roethlisberger into a higher bracket than that. Roethlisberger wanting to finish his career in Pittsburgh will most likely be a factor in negotiations.

Working a new deal seems a formality at this point, but the Steelers must secure their franchise QB while eventually planning for a future without him.

Based on the last week, that might not be easy.

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Steelers QB situation comes down to Rudolph's progression

ESPN's Jeff Darlington notes that Ben Roethlisberger has benefited from Pittsburgh drafting for value, which also resulted in the pick of Mason Rudolph.

Maximizing his final seasons

From a roster perspective, there's a case that Roethlisberger has a legitimate beef with the team trading away one of his best playmakers (Martavis Bryant) for a third-round pick that won't play quarterback for a while.

To be sure, the Steelers took receiver James Washington in the second round to help offset the loss of Bryant, who kept safeties honest for Brown and others. And Roethlisberger has been around for more than a dozen trust-the-board Steelers drafts, which works out well most years.

Perhaps the Steelers could have gotten more help for the defensive front seven. But what's clear is the Steelers need to maximize Roethlisberger's last years.

Steeler great Joe Greene saw that coming back in December when ESPN asked him about keeping up with the New England Patriots. These comments are pertinent five months later.

"We got a fantastic quarterback that in my view can do things that nobody else in the league can do," Greene said. "You name them, he can make the passes just like anybody else, better. But none of them can stand in the pocket and take the heat that he takes and make the plays.

"And he has the heart to play, but he has to believe in his team, that they feel the way he feels. Football is a hard game, very tough, and you got to love it. And if you don't, you can't give your very best and you can't play. You got to love it."