Big Ben to make rare 16th start

December 25, 2013
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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Associated Press
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked just six times over the Steelers’ past six games. Over the team’s first nine games, Big Ben was sacked 30 times.

PITTSBURGH – When Todd Haley was hired as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in 2012, part of his job descriptions was to find a way to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from getting hit too often.

A two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Roethlisberger had a propensity for taking sacks and getting hit frequently behind makeshift offensive lines.

As a result, Roethlisberger always seemed to miss a game here or a block of games there.

When the Steelers (7-8) host the Cleveland Browns (4-11) Sunday, Roethlisberger will reach a rarified spot for him – his 16th start of the season. It will be only the second time in his 10-year career that Roethlisberger has started all 16 regular-season games.

As a result, Roethlisberger enters the final regular season game needing just 247 yards to break his own team record for passing yards in a season (4,328 in 2009). He’s already set records for pass attempts (553), completions (356) and tied his team record for 300-yard passing games (5).

Roethlisberger attributes his ability to stay healthy to improved blocking by the offensive line and Haley’s scheme, which has given him more freedom to run a no-huddle offense.

“I know early on there was a lot of talk about all-time records for sacks and this and that, but the guys have really done a great job of stepping up,” Roethlisberger said. “I got the ball out of my hands and our up-tempo offense helps. I think even the hits that I do take, they don’t hurt as much as in the past.”

Roethlisberger was sacked 30 times in the Steelers’ first nine games and seemed destined to either surpass his own personal high for sacks (50 in 2009) or go down with an injury from the beating he was taking. So Haley decided to go to a high-tempo, no-huddle offense and get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands quicker. This was done for a Nov. 10 game against Buffalo in an effort to thwart Bills defensive end Mario Williams.

It worked well enough that the Steelers ran the no-huddle exclusively the next week against Detroit and the team has stuck with it. As a result, Roethlisberger has been sacked just six times in the last six games.

“Those games were the point where we all kind of said, ‘OK, this is when we’re at our best,’” Roethlisberger said.

Haley said it’s been a natural progression.

“I think there’s been enough increase in production in most areas to feel good about what the guys are doing,” Haley said. “I think the sack numbers have gone down and the turnover number has gone significantly down.”

When Haley was hired to replace Bruce Arians, it was assumed he would clash with Roethlisberger. The rift that many expected has never materialized.

“I think all the coordinators have been open to input, but this is probably the most they’ve accepted,” Roethlisberger said.

The offense has showed a more cerebral approach to the game by Roethlisberger, who often used his athleticism to extend plays when things broke down in the pocket. It led to some big plays, but also to many sacks.

Now, he’s seeing things quicker and getting the ball out of his hands.

“There are still times that I make mistakes calling the wrong play, or I guess wrong, or they guess right, and it doesn’t look so good,” Roethlisberger said. “I’d like to think that I get us in the best play possible most of the time.”

Odds and end zones

Running back Le’Veon Bell won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which is given to the team’s rookie of the year. Cornerback Ike Taylor won The Chief Award, which is given to the player who shows the most cooperation with the media. Both awards are voted on by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. … The Steelers were off Wednesday and return to practice today.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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