Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion and a future Hall of Famer.
But there’s no nice way to say this — he’s been the weak link in the Steelers’ offense in the second half of this season.
A year after leading the NFL in passing yards per game, Roethlisberger took a significant step back in 2016.
Blame injuries, blame age (he is 34 now), blame regression to the mean, but you can’t blame the talent around him in black and yellow — this is as good of an offense as any in the league.
This isn’t to say that Roethlisberger had a bad year — far from it. A dozen teams would line up to get the production he gave Pittsburgh this year. But Roethlisberger hasn’t performed like Big Ben this year — his Pro Football Focus rating fell from 93.5 to 80.5 year-over-year — and with another trip to the Super Bowl on the line and Tom Brady standing in the way, he will need to rectify that problem Sunday against the Patriots.
It’s a fairly simple formula — if the Steelers’ much-improved defense can get a few stops against a Brady who looked mortal last Saturday against the Texans and Roethlisberger looks like the vintage version of himself, Pittsburgh will play in Super Bowl LI.
It’s hard to put a game against Brady solely on the shoulders of the defense, so the load is on Big Ben.
No touchdowns and six field goals — Pittsburgh’s totals last weekend against the Chiefs — won’t get the job done at Foxborough.
Again, Roethlisberger has the weapons in front, behind and beside him to make a fourth Super Bowl appearance happen.
No. 7 has arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL and aspiring documentarian Antonio Brown on one side of the field, commanding the defense’s full attention. He has a slate of secondary options that really rounded into form in the second half of the year and don’t deserve the flack they’re still receiving.
He has arguably the best running back in the league, LeVeon Bell, who can control the pace of the game singlehandedly and make something out of nothing in ways few — if any — other backs in NFL history could.
That bounty of talent alone is enough to put the onus on Roethlisberger, the team’s distributor.
But when you add in that over the last two months he’s had the best offensive line in the NFL — yes, better than the Cowboys and pre-injury Raiders — it’s clear that Roethlisberger has become the Steelers’ X-factor.
And when an X-factor becomes a clear detriment, well, that’s called a weak link.
The Patriots aren’t going to put pressure on Roethlisberger on Sunday — they were barely able to put pressure on Brock Osweiler and a poor Texans line in their Divisional Round win last Saturday. New England’s lack of a consistent and game-affecting pass rush is well established at this point.
Against the Chiefs last weekend, the Steelers offensive line allowed Roethlisberger to be pressured only three times against a really good front seven. That’s the kind of incredible form it’s in.
And while Roethlisberger made a few winning throws from those clean pockets — his game-sealing third-down conversion to Brown was vintage Big Ben — the inaccurate passes far outweighed the above-average throws from the Steelers quarterback.
It was hard to tell who the better quarterback on the field was in Kansas City last Sunday, and the conversation around the Chiefs is whether Alex Smith is the right quarterback to lead the team going forward.
No one is going to have that conversation in Pittsburgh — you don’t disrespect a legend that way — but there needs to be some doubt trickling underneath the surface.
Sunday’s game is going to rest on Roethlisberger making accurate throws.
And with the context of recent history fresh in the mind, for the first time in 13 years, no one can say definitively if Big Ben will be able to come through.