Steelers Happy to Let Big Ben Lead Them, but They May Not Be for Long

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 22, 2019

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 30:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Let's say you're a Steelers fan.

Chances are you are angry with Antonio Brown.

You think he was a me-first guy. You think he destroyed the locker room. You believe he was an egotistical jerk. You're glad he's likely played his last game for the franchise. Good riddance, you say.

Chances are you are done with Le'Veon Bell, too.

You hate that he sat out last season because he wanted a bigger payday. You believe he's another me-first egomaniac. You're more than ready to tell him, "Don't let the Terrible Towel hit you on the way out the door, Le'Veon."

This is not how every Steelers fan feels, but it's not a stretch to believe many of them do. For a time, they may even be glad the team is fully in the hands of Ben Roethlisberger. As Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert told reporters Wednesday, Roethlisberger is now the Steelers' "unquestioned leader."

But is that a good thing?

What the Steelers are doing this offseason may represent one of the riskiest offseason plans any modern franchise has undertaken. Rarely does a team dump two superstars in one offseason.

It's the equivalent of the Patriots parting ways with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. It means Pittsburgh is going all-in on Roethlisberger, and while he is a seasoned player, and future Hall of Famer, there are still potential problems with this strategy.

There are some NFL assistant coaches who believe Roethlisberger can carry a team the way Russell Wilson does, and there are some who think Bell and Brown carried Roethlisberger, and with their departures, the quarterback will be exposed.

Let's tackle the second part first, as we have some evidence for that argument.

Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell were considered high maintenance in some NFL circles, but both impressed Steelers teammates and coaches with their work ethic.
Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell were considered high maintenance in some NFL circles, but both impressed Steelers teammates and coaches with their work ethic.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Brown is one of the greatest receivers of his generation. He's tied with Marvin Harrison and Brandon Marshall for the most seasons with at least 100 catches and 10 receiving scores in league history, according to ESPN Stats & Info. His four such seasons best Jerry Rice's three.

Bell had a similar impact, and the combination of Bell and Brown at times proved devastating. During one January 2017 playoff game against the Dolphins, the two combined for 36 touches, 298 total yards and four touchdowns.

Despite the impression that Brown (and Bell to some degree) are divas (reputations that were somewhat justified), both players also are seen as relentlessly hard workers.

"Le'Veon is a guy that's totally into football," former Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said this week on SiriusXM NFL Radio. "He'd sit by my office before the team meeting in the morning and have his iPad out, watching tape."

Haley added that Brown was the hardest-working player he's ever coached in his 24 years in the NFL.

"AB is arguably the hardest worker I've ever been around," Haley said. "It comes through his competitive nature, desire. ... You could never ask anything more of that guy. He wanted to do it all, all the time. What more could you ask for?"

Now for the hard part: Can Roethlisberger transform what the Steelers have left into what they have been in the Ben-Bell-Brown era? The team thinks so.

He did throw for more than 5,000 yards and had a passer rating of 96.5 last season, his highest since 2014. And while no one would confuse the production of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner with Brown and Bell, both had their moments last season, showing at least enough to think they could provide a reasonable facsimile of what Brown and Bell offered.

Still, it's also true that Roethlisberger has had double-digit interceptions for four straight years. And while Smith-Schuster is talented, he and Roethlisberger now won't have the benefit of Brown getting constant double-teams. As for Conner, though he did run for more than 100 yards five times last season, he also produced five games with 60 rushing yards or fewer.

JuJu Smith-Schuster had 1,426 yards receiving and seven touchdowns last season but likely will be forced to face the league's top defensive backs next season as the presumptive No. 1 receiver in Pittsburgh.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had 1,426 yards receiving and seven touchdowns last season but likely will be forced to face the league's top defensive backs next season as the presumptive No. 1 receiver in Pittsburgh.Don Wright/Associated Press/Associated Press

Then, finally, there is the huge black and gold elephant in the room, and that's Roethlisberger's leadership skills. Former teammates have characterized him as a poor teammate. Former Steeler and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward said Roethlisberger "should know better" than to openly criticize teammates, as Roethlisberger has done on more than a few occasions. If Colbert's recent comments exalting his QB are any indication, though, the team doesn't seem to have a problem with Roethlisberger's approach with a roster Colbert described as "kids" working under the soon-to-be 37-year-old.

With Brown and Bell on the team, Roethlisberger's leadership was tempered by other spheres of influence in the locker room. Without them, it's all on Roethlisberger. The Steelers seem happy with this.

But the question is...

...should they be?

               

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL

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