Ben Roethlisberger: 7 Reasons That 2011 Will Be His Greatest Season Ever
Whether regarding his penchant for making the big play, success in clutch moments or Houdini acts in the pocket, Steelers Nation is blessed to have such a rare talent at the most critical position in football.
On April 24, 2004, the Steelers franchise began its second championship era with the drafting of the Miami (OH) quarterback. Fans anxiously waited through the early selections, wondering if the young gun would be available while Cleveland and Detroit obliged by drafting Kellen Winslow II and Roy Williams.
Those faithfully garbed in Black and Gold remember the giant's day at the podium. They also vividly recall Tommy Maddox sitting awkwardly on his knees, his arm contorted strangely, during a loss at Baltimore. Roethlisberger entered the game to spell the broken Maddox, but ultimately never left, as he spelled R-I-N-G at the conclusion of his sophomore season.
He struggled in Super Bowl XL, but he was still the youngest champion quarterback in NFL history.
In those days, the 'Berger was a part of a machine still slightly bigger than himself, though it is hard to imagine anything being bigger than Ben in "Pitts-berger." A quarterback capable of great plays was a key cog in a balanced attack.
He had a large influence on the outcome of games, however. If he were truly just a remote operator, the outcome of those early seasons and the fifth championship would have been playoff exits- the Kordell Stewart specialty.
As seasons elapsed, the offensive line talent wore thinner, while the keys to the car became more accessible. Upon taking over as offensive coordinator, Bruce Aryans ought as well have said, "Here they are. Take them and drive!" He went as far as to design packages and concepts in which Ben could call his own plays.
The team passed with more frequency than ever before. The Steelers' franchise quarterback with the niche for the gloriously unexpected became the anti-Favre, a gunslinger molded together with a rational field general opposed to a narcissistic cannon firing rounds without regard and with far too much reckless abandon.
And, the Steelers won another Super Bowl.... but this time it was largely because of Ben.
Along the way, he eclipsed 4,000 yards in a season (2009) and 30 touchdowns (2007). Yet, for all of his big-game capability, the quarterback has never put these types of numbers all together.
In 2011, Ben Roethlisberger will have his greatest statistical season, harnessing all of his talents and producing a breakout campaign to silence every dim-witted critic that ranks him far too low.
In fact, I expect nothing short of 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, all while avoiding critical turnovers. In other words, Favre 2.0 is about to get even better: Roethlisberger 2.0.
Fans in Pittsburgh will realize that such a fine season isn't a finer version of Big Ben at all; it's just the potential of a great quarterback coming together in harmony.
In no particular order, here are seven for No. 7: seven reasons to expect the greatest season of No. 7's illustrious career in 2011!
The Offensive Line Returning to Form
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Like the bubonic plague striking the crew of a small rat-infested ship, the Steelers offensive line got swatted like flies last season. Falling one after another, each new loss became exasperating, begging the question:
Is this the breaking point? Or is it this one?
Remarkably, the team held it together, as bending and breaking are two different things. In fact, despite an inconsistent roster of offensive linemen and numerous bad breaks (literally and figuratively), the trenches downright belonged to the Steelers on occasion.
Anybody who watched the first half against the Jets, where the Steelers ran seemingly at will, saw the potential for improvement up front in 2011.
As Roethlisberger is concerned, his style of play certainly skews the statistics. Ultimately, I'd gather his sacks as a wash. Half are the result of his belief that no play should be forfeited. The other half are the result of shoddiness at protecting Ben.
Heading into '11, the 11 members of the offense could find that better health along the line is "eleven heaven." When your beasts are healthy, the whole unit feasts.
Quarterbacks have more time and options. Receivers catch more passes. Running backs gain more yards. Coordinators have more flexibility with the play chart.
The obvious strategy by Pittsburgh is to have depth along the line that is adaptable. In fact, the Steelers illustrated this focus in their drafting of Florida's Marcus Gilbert (second round), a lineman with experience playing both guard and tackle.
It doesn't hurt that the anchor of the line is Maurkice Pouncey, a phenomenal young center that could ascend to the best at his position in football. Pouncey is also able to play guard, though any change in his status is dramatically unlikely.
With Willie Colon and Jonathan Scott signed into the mix, even the tackle situation looks less bleak than it did a few weeks ago.
If the hogs stay healthy, Ben will have even more time and options to inflict his style of damage.
B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets!
Big Ben(nie) has a corp of receivers that use rocket fuel to transport themselves from point A to point B, speedsters that showcased their explosiveness as last season progressed.
In fact, does it get any more clutch than the fourth receiver catching a football against his helmet on 3rd-and-19 late in the divisional playoffs to defeat a division rival with a heralded defense?
Yes, this Steelers receiving corp is loaded with kinetic energy and fun factor!
While Emmanuel Sanders is out currently due to a foot injury, he will return healthy early in the year. Coupled with Antonio Brown, the pair of undervalued burners give the team great depth. Roethlisberger will not have a shortage of options in spread formations, though a taller target at one side of the field would be beneficial.
As it stands, Hines Ward—pass catcher and extreme blocker—will start alongside Mike Wallace, who led the AFC last year with 21.0 yards per catch. With his offseason goal of a 2,000-yard season seemingly a tall order, the Steelers most explosive wide out is clearly determined to improve on an already stellar 2010.
Yancy Thigpen owns the club record with 1,398 yards, and I expect the ambitious Wallace to eclipse the mark this season.
More important than the speed of the team's receivers is their consistency with route running and time together. With a year under their belt, the unit will continue to develop the type of chemistry that will make them a potent passing attack.
In an episode of "America's Game," Michael Irvin talks about closing his eyes to run routes, confident that Aikman would hit him in the hands 9-of-10 times based simply on their bond and precision.
With patience, practice and execution, "B-B-B-Bennie and his Jets" may just have liftoff in 2011.
Rashard Mendenhall: "You Scratch My Back..."
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Balance is killer on offense.
From playing a Madden video game veteran to watching the outcome of an NFL game, the frustration that comes with potency in both the run and pass game is incredibly disadvantageous to the defense.
Load the box? Fall victim to speed at receiver.
Play back? Mendenhall will do his work.
With any wisdom, Rashard Mendenhall will view 2011 as a season of retribution. After a critical turnover in the Super Bowl and hectic offseason, the running back and controversial political figure should be looking to run hard.
If he can stick it to critics in the form of about 1,300 yards, the Steelers offense will be a balanced machine that gives defensive coordinators even more headaches.
An improved line and even more experience at all phases should equate to an unexpected season for the Steelers offense. In reality, the rest of the NFL and various circles of fans have no idea how much potential the Black and Gold offense truly has!
Balance negates predictability, keeping defenses honest and not allowing them to focus their attention at any specific strength.
In other words, as it will allow Roethlisberger more opportunities downfield by keeping defenses away from nickel and dime formations, the book of objectives has a simple title: "Run, Rashard, Run."
As theory goes, the run sets up the pass. In truth, neither the run or the pass sets up the other.
The deterrence of having both sets up both.
Now, if only Mendenhall could protect the ball with a bit more maturity....
The Roethlisberger Way: The Misnomer of Holding the Ball "Too Long"
While all of these factors will help Ben toward having a career year, nothing will better serve the eight-year starter more than simply "Ben being Ben."
Ben's raw talent alone is the key to allowing him such success at the professional ranks. While ignorance allows rankings in which Michael Vick supplants the proven champion, those most familiar with Ben's style of play that truly understand it realize that it is a strength.
He escapes from tackles nobody else can dodge.
His brute strength makes him impossible to bring down.
His accuracy throwing on the run is absolutely uncanny.
He times risks and comes through in the clutch more often than not.
These facets of his game make him the supreme candidate for making something out of nothing. This is exactly what he does, and his statistics shine for it.
Roethlisberger leads all active quarterbacks with an average yards per pass attempt of 8.08. He is the only member of the active fraternity to accomplish this figure.
While he does take sacks that some quarterbacks may avoid, his ability to escape harrowing circumstances and make plays with his mobility are much more beneficial than damning. In fact, his willingness to extend plays allows receivers to find open or "soft" spots in defenses that are not immediately available.
Often, this determination behind the line of scrimmage results in big plays down the field, benefiting the passing game and frustrating defenses more than any traditional pocket passer ever could
With the accuracy of most pocket passers even while on the run, Roethlisberger is a rare bird that should not change his colors.
"Live by the sword, die by the sword." Right?
A gunslinger always checks his firearm before going to battle; there's no way to take his bullets.
With all of these other advantages working in his favor, Ben's biggest ally will be himself.
The Things That Fuel Us!
We're only human. All of us. Even NFL quarterbacks.
In this era, the team has never been tested after a Super Bowl defeat. Surely, the memory of two first-half interceptions resulting in 21 points has haunted Big Ben during a painfully-long offseason.
While the distraction of football related activities takes the mind off of losing, this was not the case in 2011. For months, Ben's mind was surely flooded by the memory of Nick Collins shimmying his way into the end zone in a close championship loss to the Packers.
The key lessons were there to be taken from the experience. At any time, any play can change the outcome of a game.
In his three Super Bowl appearances less one drive, Ben has sadly not truly conjured the total strength of his play. This has had a negative impact on his perceived value as an elite quarterback.
Players will tell you that this makes no difference. Nobody argues that winning is far more important than the opinions of fans, peers, and even ex-players.
Yet, the desire to show people that they are wrong can be a strong motivator.
While the mention of his name draws ire among the Steelers Nation, I'll beg forgiveness for mentioning Tom Brady. For all of the comparisons between he and Peyton Manning, do you really believe that the notion of Peyton's better "stats" didn't fuel him to break his touchdown record.
Sure, it took more than that—but if you think it wasn't a factor, think again.
With cynics undermining his value, Roethlisberger can do a great service to his loyal supporters and legacy by putting together a fine season. The 2011 season may very well mark the apex of balance between age/experience and talent/ability for a team whose window of opportunity will not last forever.
Yes, the pieces will change, but Roethlisberger enters his prime with a great deal of explosive talent around him.
Between the naysayers and haunting memories of a championship dream turned nightmarish, Big Ben needs to put a big hurting on all of the doubts.
For all of the idealistic theories of wins needing to be the lone source of ambition for athletes, the reality is that their ears hear what ours hear.
Deep down, 2011 is a great chance to stick it to his critics, and Big Ben knows it!
If No. 7 needs any more fuel to batter the NFL's defenses, it is available for the taking!
Lack of Distractions and a 16 Game Schedule
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In 2010, Roethlisberger was on pace to set some new career marks. The only problem was that he was only eligible for 12 games.
At the start of the season, Dennis Dixon (pictured above) was running the Steelers offense; later, it was Charlie Batch.
Either way, it wasn't Ben, who had little time to truly focus on football.
After a summer of distractions (is that putting it mildly?), the quarterback lost the month of September with his team. With thoughts of public scrutiny and a damaged reputation having to weigh on him, the conditions were not ideal for planting the seeds of a successful 2010.
On top of the lessened focus, Roethlisberger lost valuable time in the first month of the regular season that should have been spent bonding with his offense. The acquisitions of key personnel, including the aforementioned receivers (earlier in the article), had delayed development.
This season, the Steelers and Big Ben get to perfect their timing together, harmoniously joined from now until the end of a 16-game regular season.
In a season with so much promise, Bruce Aryans will surely give Ben ample opportunities on a balanced offense to take full benefit, and this will automatically translate into a far more productive volume year.
Gaining back 25 percent of his season means that Ben's statistics could improve by 33ercent or better from his totals in 2010. To adjust for both an improved offense and a full season, the following represents Roethlisberger's numbers from last year inflated by 40 percent to show potential: 4,270 yards; 24 TD; six INT.
And, atop of the extra games, the word on 2011 gets even better, because.....(see next slide!)
Horrible Pass Defenses Could Dominate 2011 Schedule
....the Steelers could potentially be playing one of the easiest schedules in their franchise history.
Not to sound overconfident, as the NFL is a field of change, but November and December have all the makings of momentum heading into (hopefully) the playoffs.
That said, this is not an evaluation of the Steelers' schedule; it is the top reasons that 2011 will be a breakout year for Ben Roethlisberger. At the top of the list is the gallery of pass defenses Ben will be facing.
Teams improve and get worse; rankings are fluid. Surely, the entire picture is not set in stone. Early polls look promising for the Steelers pass offense.
Speaking of the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers, their pass defenses left much to be desired as well, ranking 18th, 22nd and 23rd respectively.
While Houston made major overhauls in the free-agency period (Texans to take the South which I believe will benefit their secondary tremendously), they still have to put their dead last pass defense to the test. How much of their weakness was predicated on scheme?
While the Patriots ranked among the league's worst pass defenses, Belichick and company seem to always have a way to keep Roethlisberger in check. Perhaps, this means that Ben is due to perform well against them.
Best of all, the Steelers face the putrid Bengals, a pass defense that gave Ben some fits last season that lost its best cover corner. Surely, this will open up opportunities!
In reality, many of these pass defenses may improve—perhaps tremendously—via experience, changes in scheme or acquisitions.
Nevertheless, the potential is there for the Steelers to exploit a few subpar secondaries!
After the Fact: 2011 Projections
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So, with all of these reasons to expect a breakout year for Big Ben, Steelers fans must be salivating to begin the 2011 campaign.
In my estimation, towel twirling fanatics can expect Roethlisberger to have a career year, producing 4,300 yards, 30 or more touchdowns and a limited number of interceptions.
No matter who chooses to admit it, Roethlisberger has a championship pedigree that should make Steelers Nation proud, no matter the statistics he accomplishes.
Despite the lack of fantasy football figures, the most important numbers concerning the passer are the two rings that rest on his mantle and the most important letter is "W."
Before his arrival on that sunny April 24th afternoon, the Steelers were a great franchise that didn't win championships anymore. If the Kordell Stewart era taught anything, it was that Pittsburgh was a quarterback away from greatness.
With the arrival of Roethlisberger came that greatness.