Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is an NFL superstar. An elite player at football's most important position. A two-time Super Bowl champion who has already done exactly what the Steelers are trying to do in 2015—win football's biggest game as a No. 6 seed in the playoffs.
However, this season Roethlisberger has also been a quarterback prone to turning over the ball—to making the sorts of ill-advised throws that make coaches and fans alike cringe.
And if that Ben Roethlisberger shows up at Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers' postseason run may be over before it starts.
Over the past month or so, as Pittsburgh made a push toward the playoffs, the Steelers have generated a lot of press as the team in the AFC no one wants to play. In fact, a few weeks ago Brian Billick of NFL Network went so far as to quip that the New England Patriots' Week 16 loss to the New York Jets was a good thing for the Pats:
Brian Billick @CoachBillick
By losing to the #Jets, the #Pats may have helped keep the #Steelers out of the postseason. Something they aren't going to be upset about.12/27/2015, 9:12:32 PM
They can beat anyone because Antonio Brown is the Steph Curry of the NFL in that he can beat you from anywhere on the field. You can try to double-team him, but it's almost like you are wasting a defender because he is just going to shake both of them anyway -- his NFL record 265 receptions in the past two seasons is evidence of that. And when you do try and bracket Brown, Big Ben can chuck it up to one of the best deep-ball receivers in the NFL today, Martavis Bryant. Bryant, Sammy Watkins' teammate at Clemson, is both taller and faster than the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Bryant has become the big-bodied receiver the Steelers have been looking for ever since drafting Limas Sweed with a second-round pick in 2008. As a whole, with no disrespect to the Cardinals and Bengals, the Steelers have the best group of receivers in the NFL.
Mind you, this is a team that beat the same Bengals squad it faces Saturday in Cincinnati back in Week 14. It downed the top-seeded Denver Broncos in wild fashion one week later. As Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com wrote, that's in no small part because Big Ben has been as prolific as ever chucking the rock around the field:
328.1: The Steelers' average passing yards per game when Ben Roethlisberger starts. On a ho-hum, average day, Roethlisberger is throwing for 300-plus. He completed 11 games, and he's thrown for fewer than 300 yards in only two of them. Turnovers have been an issue, as he's thrown six interceptions in his past three starts. The red zone offense will stall on occasion. But the passing totals are significant because Roethlisberger consistently gives the Steelers chances -- chances for field goals, for touchdowns, to control the game. Those chances travel, too.
That 328 yards and change per game is a career best for the 12th-year veteran. So is his 76.86 QBR in 2015.
Simply put, had Roethlisberger not missed time this year (more than once) due to injury, there would probably be MVP talk swirling in the Steel City.
As head coach Mike Tomlin told Jeffri Chadiha of NFL.com, "We're capable of beating anyone." Of course, Tomlin then added, "but we're also capable of losing to anyone, particularly if we lose the turnover battle."
The team proved this by falling to the Baltimore Ravens' JV team in Week 16.
And therein lies the problem with Roethlisberger in 2015.
He's been far too prone to throwing the ball to the players in the wrong color hat. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided an example Jan. 3:
Ed Bouchette @EdBouchette
Ben Roethlisberger has been intercepted 6 times in past 3 games.1/3/2016, 7:57:12 PM
Roethlisberger has thrown multiple picks in four of his last six starts. His 16 interceptions this season are his most since tossing 23 all the way back in 2006.
And, mind you, these aren't hard-luck, tipped-pass, right-through-the-receiver's-hands interceptions. Check out this pick against Cleveland in Week 17, as provided by the Browns' official Twitter account:
Cleveland Browns @Browns
Jordan Poyer with the interception. Browns Ball #PITvsCLE https://t.co/oxDTrCivpm1/3/2016, 6:33:46 PM
That pass never should have been thrown. Roethlisberger stared down the receiver for far too long. He might as well have mailed Jordan Poyer an invitation to jump the route.
As Tomlin told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before Week 17, there's a pretty clear delineation for the Steelers where turnovers are concerned:
We are 0-5 when we lose the turnover battle in football games. Conversely, we are 9-1 when we win or tie in the turnover ratio. That’s been a very bright line for us. We know it is something that we are very cognizant of. That’s why we have to do a great job of taking care of the football and work extremely hard to get the ball.
Roethlisberger, for his part, wasn't overly concerned with his proclivity for picks while speaking with Fittipaldo: "Just keep playing the game. That’s the key to being a quarterback is having short-term memory, for good and bad. We have enough weapons in our offense, we do enough that I’m just going to keep playing the way I play."
Maybe he should be worried. This isn't the Browns. This is the AFC North champion. A team with the NFL's second-best scoring defense. A Bengals team that ranked third in the NFL this season with a plus-11 turnover margin.
With running back DeAngelo Williams looking unlikely to play Saturday thanks to a bum ankle, the Steelers will be forced to rely on their burly quarterback more than ever. Pittsburgh will go as far in the postseason as Roethlisberger's right arm carries it.
And how far that is depends in large part on which color hat Big Ben throws to.
Orange is bad, Ben. Very bad.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.
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