Time For Ben To Become Elite QB

Ben Roethlisberger (Andy Lyons photos/Getty)

Just as Terry Bradshaw became the Steelers' centerpiece 35 years ago, it's time for Ben Roethlisberger to do the same and become a true team leader and elite quarterback.

Ben Roethlisberger sure has some pretty stats. Check 'em out:

* Passer rating of 98.6 is the third best of his career and within range of his best (104.1).

* Completion percentage of 66.0 is the third best of his career and within range of his best (66.6).

* He's been sacked once every 19.1 dropbacks, much better than his career best of once every 13.8 dropbacks last season.

* He's been intercepted once every 79.3 passes, slightly better than his career best of once every 78.8 passes in 2010.

* Also, the Steelers lead the NFL in time of possession (34:49) and third-down conversion percentage (53.8), primarily because Roethlisberger has completed an NFL high 46 passes with a second-best passer rating (116) on third down.

Clearly, Roethlisberger is adapting to new coordinator Todd Haley, and he admitted as much Thursday to USA Today's Jarrett Bell.

"Coach Haley and I had a laugh about it this morning," Roethlisberger said of what was taken last week as his derisive mocking of the "dink and dunk" offense.

"To dink and dunk, that's moving the chains," Roethlisberger told Bell. "And it will open up big plays."

So everything's all peachy. Roethlisberger is 30, in great shape, still strong of arm and smarter of mind, on the same page with his coordinator, and he's not limping.

But Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had this to say when asked at his weekly press conference what he thinks of his offense:

"We're about 3-3," Tomlin answered.

That stat's not so pretty, is it?

Of course, it's the defense's fault. Ask anyone with a radio microphone. Or the gang on Sunday Night Sports Shout. Or anyone on your twitter feed.

I had the audacity a few days a ago to float that Roethlisberger – a quarterback who's always been driven more by wins than by stats – shouldn't have left the Cincinnati Bengals hanging around last Sunday night. I criticized him for not delivering the knockout blow.

The Steelers had a 7-point lead with 6:10 left when they snapped the ball on first down at the Cincinnati 36. They needed about 5 more yards to give their red-hot kicker the chance to put the game away for good.

It didn't happen.

Roethlisberger threw an ugly sidearm screen pass to Mike Wallace that Wallace didn't appear to know was coming. And then Roethlisberger took a sack. And then he threw another pass to Wallace that was dropped.

The Bengals took the ball after a punt but the Steelers' defense stopped them.

I'm not sure the defense should be lauded or the Bengals should be ridiculed, but imagine if the defense had not stopped the Bengals. Imagine if the Bengals had marched down the field for a late, go-ahead score as the Titans, Eagles, Raiders and Broncos before them had done this season. Dick LeBeau may have been strung up in effigy.

Not delivering the knockout punch isn't merely a current trend for Roethlisberger. And before I tore into the old Gamebooks to find precise numbers, I set forth the following parameters:

Steelers lead by 8 or less and begin a possession with 10:25 or less to play. A possession doesn't count if it ends with less than 40 seconds remaining.

I chose the 10:25 mark because that was the time left when the Steelers took possession in Miami in 2004 in Roethlisberger's first start.

In that game, Roethlisberger delivered a knockout punch when he drove the Steelers for a touchdown. He turned a 3-point lead into a 10-point win. Since then, Roethlisberger has had 36 more knockout opportunities and delivered the kill shot only 4 more times. He did it again in 2004, twice in 2009, and last year at home against Cleveland.

So he's knocked out 5 opponents in 37 NFL chances.

We all know that Roethlisberger's "a ridiculous competitor," as Tomlin likes to say. When his team's down or tied, he's been one of the NFL's best. But with a slight lead, he either loses focus or doesn't possess whatever drives him when his team is losing.

The Steelers did hold on to win all but 7 of those 37 games, so, as they showed against the Bengals, the defense does hang on – either that or Roethlisberger rallies the team after the defense gives up the lead.

But the problem will only grow as the defense continues to age. As much as the fans and media complain about what LeBeau is scheming or whom Kevin Colbert is drafting, the fact is that Aaron Smith is not coming back, and neither is James Farrior, and someday soon neither will Casey Hampton or Troy Polamalu or James Harrison.

Those are special players, the likes of which we will never see again, and so it's only natural that Roethlisberger and the offense pick up the slack.

It's their team now, just as the 1978 and 1979 Steelers became the offense's team back in the days of the first dynasty, and Terry Bradshaw did deliver those late-game knockout punches to win Super Bowls at the end of both seasons. The Steel Curtain wasn't around anymore. The quarterback knew it was his time in the sun, and he didn't blink.

Roethlisberger has that kind of talent, that kind of savvy, and is, once again, a ridiculous competitor. But he needs to knock teams out when he can, when he should. It's what elite quarterbacks do.

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