F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column
Big Ben holds key for playoffs
On last week’s episode of “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals,” there’s a telling moment with defensive tackle Domata Peko and his two sons.
Peko’s young son, sitting in the back of the car, asks his father if the Bengals are going to beat the Steelers this season.
Not the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
No, in Cincinnati, they’re still focused on beating the Steelers.
That’s life in the AFC North, a division the Steelers have largely ruled for the past decade. And that’s what makes last season’s 8-8 record and missing the playoffs such a sore point in Pittsburgh’s locker room.
Owners of six Super Bowl victories from eight appearances, the Steelers go into every season expecting to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
Other teams pay lip service about being a Super Bowl contender. In Pittsburgh, it has become expected.
“Our goal every year is to win the Super Bowl,” said defensive end Brett Keisel, one of six players on the roster who has won a pair of Super Bowls with the Steelers.
“That’s how it is here.”
The Steelers will go 10-6 this season, a record that will put them in the running to win the AFC North and return to the playoffs.
Following an 0-4 preseason – just the fourth time the Steelers have gone 0-4 in the preseason since 1965 – many will question how Pittsburgh’s roster has improved over the one that finished out of the playoffs in 2012.
Starters James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Max Starks, Willie Colon and Rashard Mendenhall are no longer with the team.
But in the grand scheme of things, what did the Steelers lose?
Harrison, for example, had seen his sack total fall from 101/2 to 9 to 6 over the past three seasons. There’s little hope that the 35-year-old linebacker was suddenly going to revert to his former All-Pro status, despite his epic work ethic.
And Steelers fans spent last season complaining about how it appeared that Wallace was just going through the motions as he played out his contract with the hopes of a break-the-bank deal elsewhere, something he got from Miami.
Hampton? Still without a team.
Starks? Cut by San Diego Saturday.
Colon? Spent more time on IR in the past three seasons than he did on the active roster.
Mendenhall? Struggled through an injury-riddled 2012 season, then missed most of the preseason with the Arizona Cardinals, his new team.
Only Lewis, a first-year starter in 2012, could be considered a major loss, and the Steelers feel they have a better replacement in Cortez Allen. The argument could be made that William Gay, who will replace Allen in the nickel role is a downgrade, but Gay is returning to a role in which he helped the Steelers to a No. 1 rating against the pass in 2011 before spending last season with Arizona.
Because of those losses and coming off an 8-8 season, the Steelers are being picked for another third-place finish in the AFC North by many prognosticators.
An 0-4 preseason didn’t help.
“I like that we’re still the underdogs, and we’re the ‘nobody team’ and everyone’s counting us out,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “That’s still fine with me.”
Roethlisberger is the reason the Steelers will not only bounce back in 2013, they’ll be one of the better teams in the AFC.
He remains the best quarterback in the AFC North, regardless of what the Ravens are paying Joe Flacco. Only New England, with Tom Brady, and Atlanta, with Matt Ryan, have a better winning percentage than the .690 clip the Steelers have when Roethlisberger is their starting quarterback.
He’s one of just three active quarterbacks, along with Brady and Eli Manning, who have won multiple Super Bowls. Heck, he’s one of just six active quarterbacks who has won a Super Bowl. It’s that exclusive a group.
Roethlisberger was having arguably his best season last year before a freak shoulder injury sidelined him for three games. And he was clearly not the same quarterback after his return as he had been before when the Steelers were 6-3 and coming off a big victory in New York against the Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions.
Roethlisberger is the team’s offense. He makes all of the players around him better.
And with a healthy Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley leading the way, the defense, which was No. 1 in the league in 2012, should again be solid.
If Roethlisberger starts 14 or more games, the Steelers will be in the playoffs. If he does not, they won’t. It’s that simple of an equation.
The bet here is that he does, and the Steelers rebound in 2013.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at email@example.com