Coming off a career statistical year and with his best supporting cast in years, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a great chance to play at the level his new contract suggests he will.
Tuesday’s OTA session marks the first time Roethlisberger takes the field in a competitive team setting since signing a five-year, $99 million deal this offseason that can vault to $108 million.
Joining Roethlisberger on the field is arguably the league’s best running back/receiver tandem in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, an offensive line stocked with successful draft picks eyeing a top 10 league rushing performance, and several young players that need developmental help from their 33-year-old quarterback.
The whispers of discord with Todd Haley have dissipated as Roethlisberger enters the fourth season with the former Chiefs head coach. Posting 4,952 yards and a 103.3 passer rating quells any concerns between quarterback and coordinator.
But make no mistake, Roethlisberger must satisfy a few areas to validate the new money.
Improve playoff turnover numbers: Roethlisberger is naturally compared to Joe Flacco because of the AFC North connection, Super Bowl success and both posting 10-5 playoff records.
Roethlisberger probably tops Flacco on most pundits’ top 10 lists, but Flacco has a sizable lead over Roethlisberger in one important area: playoff touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Flacco’s 25-to-10 (2.5) performance overwhelms Roethlisberger’s 21-to-19 (1.1) clip. Seven of Roethlisberger’s interceptions have come in his last four playoff games, including two in last season’s loss to the Ravens in the wild-card round. Roethlisberger was without Bell that week.
The onus is on Roethlisberger to protect the ball better no matter who’s in the lineup.
Build on continuity with Haley: Both parties expressed a healthy respect for one another after questions persisted for years. They had a huge season together in 2014. Year 4 in the Haley-Roethlisberger experiment presents the chance for a true partnership that brings the best out of each other.
Tom Brady seems to have this with Josh McDaniels, Drew Brees with Sean Payton and Aaron Rodgers with Mike McCarthy. It’s easy to praise someone when the numbers are piling up. Partnerships don't break if a season starts slow, which is entirely possible for Pittsburgh while Bell misses three games.
If that happens, Steelers fans will see how strong the Roethlisberger-Haley bond is.
Make younger players better: Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates will be fascinating to watch develop in the next year or two. Bryant is well on his way after coming off an eight-touchdown, 21-yards-per-catch season. Wheaton has flashed potential but could be asked to man the slot position full time. That requires finding a serious rhythm with Roethlisberger. The slot role has never been more crucial in NFL passing games.
Coates has downfield speed and athleticism but is a bit raw and is trying to shed the drops label. Can Roethlisberger help maximize Coates' potential?
Roethlisberger is playing behind top-shelf offensive line talent. Two linemen have earned hefty long-term deals (Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert) and two more could get one soon (David DeCastro, Kelvin Beachum). If the line finds a run-heavy identity similar to the Cowboys the last few years, that alleviates pressure on Roethlisberger to carry the offense all the time. That helps the turnovers (see: first point).