National Football League
Big Ben, Steelers shouldn't celebrate
National Football League

Big Ben, Steelers shouldn't celebrate

Published Sep. 3, 2010 1:00 a.m. ET

Under the circumstances, it was the best news Ben Roethlisberger could have hoped to receive.

Now comes the tough part.

Just because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shortened Roethlisberger’s suspension from six games to four after a Friday meeting at league headquarters doesn’t mean the star Pittsburgh quarterback should celebrate by popping champagne bottles or, for that matter, ordering tequila shots for his “bitches” at a college bar. It was the latter type of deviant behavior with at least one underage female student and ensuing sexual assault claim that led to this situation in the first place.

All signs are that Roethlisberger has cleaned up his boorish, alcohol-soaked act. At least Goodell thinks so, which is the most important thing for Roethlisberger’s NFL future.


But for the first month of the season, Roethlisberger’s repentance does his teammates and the franchise that pays him handsomely no good.

As soon as Thursday night’s preseason finale against Carolina ended, Roethlisberger became persona non grata for the Steelers. NFL rules prohibit him from visiting team headquarters, practicing or standing on the sidelines until the suspension ends. Roethlisberger will instead have to watch from afar as the Steelers try to prevent digging too deep a hole before his October return.

Roethlisberger better have his boots ready.

An already suspect backup situation took a turn for the worse when Leftwich suffered a torn knee ligament against the Panthers. The starting responsibility now falls to either Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon.

A 13-year NFL veteran, Batch was kept in mothballs during the preseason. He was likely headed for release until Leftwich was injured. Dixon is unproven with just one NFL start in two seasons and a shaky performance in Pittsburgh’s “dress rehearsal” third preseason game against Denver.

Dixon, though, possesses the one trait most needed now in Pittsburgh’s offense: the ability to run for his life.

I’m surprised Leftwich lasted as long as he did. A traditional drop-back passer with an elongated throwing release, Leftwich took a beating behind an offensive line that looks even worse than the unit whose shoddy 2009 performance resulted in the offseason firing of position coach Larry Zierlein. In particular, new right tackle Flozell “The Hotel” Adams has opened doors for speed rushers with his plodding play.

Roethlisberger may be the NFL’s only signal-caller who can still flourish under these circumstances. He has before while getting sacked a bone-shaking 189 times over the past four seasons, including 46 takedowns during Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl-winning season in 2008.

Even though he slimmed down during the offseason – a little less partying, perhaps? – the 6-foot-5, 241-pound Roethlisberger still has the size to shrug off hits from blitzing defensive backs and some smallish linebackers. He has excellent pocket presence. This allows Roethlisberger to sidestep pressure and let his receivers get open downfield. Roethlisberger also excels in the hurry-up offense, which can cover other offensive deficiencies.

With two Lombardi Trophies to his credit at the tender age of 28, Roethlisberger deserves mention with Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the game’s best quarterbacks. The shame of it all: That talent will be squandered for the first month of the season.

Roethlisberger’s pending absence has raised the heat on everyone else inside the Steelers organization. Embattled offensive coordinator Bruce Arians must find a way to scheme around his quarterbacks’ flaws. Running back Rashard Mendenhall has to carry an even bigger load to take pressure off the passing game. Even more weight falls on the shoulders of a vaunted defense that slipped last year largely because of injuries that have since healed.

The Steelers must weather this storm for a four-game stretch that begins Sept. 12 against visiting Atlanta, a preseason playoff favorite coming off a 9-7 season. The Steelers then have road games at Tennessee – one of the NFL’s hottest teams in the second half of last season – and lowly Tampa Bay before returning home to face archrival Baltimore.

The Steelers are in trouble should they emerge at anything less than 2-2. The remaining schedule looks brutal with two matchups against defending AFC North champion Cincinnati, which swept Pittsburgh in 2009, and out-of-division games against heavies like New Orleans, New England and the New York Jets. Remember, too, that the 2009 Steelers fell apart against some of the worst teams on their schedule like Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.

Roethlisberger will be made a scapegoat if Pittsburgh falls short of the playoffs for a second straight season. No argument here. This suspension was completely preventable had Roethlisberger learned to change his ways after the first time he was accused of a 2008 sexual assault in Reno, Nevada. The narcissistic “Big Ben” persona crossed the line of human decency. Roethlisberger has admitted such, but only after it was too late to avoid banishment under Goodell’s personal conduct policy.

Roethlisberger now has plenty of time to ponder this as well as all the collateral damage he caused: The fans he disappointed, the proud organization he embarrassed, the teammates and coaches he has burdened. When he does, Roethlisberger should feel a greater shame than from any of the individual humiliation he already has suffered.

That will be the harshest penalty of all.


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