Roethlisberger's return stokes Steelers' hopes
Tenth in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2017 regular season.
GREEN BAY - The Pittsburgh Steelers are approaching the end of an era, and for a while, their offseason hinged on whether that era was ending faster than they might have expected.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who turned 35 earlier this year, said in January that he was mulling retirement, unsure if he would return for a 14th season. Had Roethlisberger stepped away, the Steelers would have rewritten their entire offseason strategy. Landry Jones, the backup, is not the long-term answer.
But Roethlisberger quelled those fears in April by announcing his return for at least one more year. And his presence alone makes the Steelers legitimate contenders in the AFC.
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Though he may not receive the same attention as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers — and certain off-field issues surely have contributed to that — Roethlisberger has been tremendous for the Steelers since joining the team as the 11th overall pick in 2004. He has four seasons with at least 4,000 passing yards, seven with at least 3,500 passing yards and his 301 touchdown passes are good for ninth on the all-time list.
He has won two Super Bowls and been named to the Pro Bowl five times. He is 10th all-time in passing yards. He never has missed more than four games in a season due to injury.
The Steelers have surrounded Roethlisberger with plenty of weapons in recent years, namely running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, both of whom are among the best in the league at their positions. With a remarkably balanced offense and legitimate big-play potential, the Steelers are probably the most worthy challengers of the New England Patriots for top dogs in the AFC.
Here are three things to know about the Steelers:
» Deep threat: The Steelers were extremely patient with wide receiver Martavis Bryant, whose repeated violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy culminated in a minimum one-year suspension levied last spring. But Bryant was reinstated in the spring, and he adds some pop to a receiving corps led by Antonio Brown, arguably the best pass catcher in the league. Bryant caught 14 touchdown passes in his first 21 games with the Steelers in 2014 and 2015.
» Heir apparent: Though he turned 39 in May, the seemingly ageless James Harrison is back for another season, still posting the same ridiculous workout videos on social media. Harrison has posted at least five sacks in the regular season nine times in the last 10 years. He was once among the best edge rushers in the league; he remains very solid. But the Steelers drafted his potential heir when they selected former Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt late in the first round. Watt could step in immediately with Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense.
» Insurance policy: In Le’Veon Bell the Steelers have arguably the best running back in the league, a player who ran for 1,268 yards, caught 75 passes for 616 more yards and scored nine total touchdowns last season — in 12 games. The Steelers also had a very reliable backup in DeAngelo Williams, who rushed for 1,250 yards over the last two years combined. But Williams, a free agent, remains unsigned, and the Steelers have legitimate questions about who is playing behind Bell. Their best bet is rookie James Conner, a third-round pick from Pittsburgh.
Packers schedule glimpse
Nov. 26 at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m., NBC
Week before: vs. Baltimore, Nov. 19
Week after: vs. Tampa Bay, Dec. 3
On the horizon: at Cleveland, Dec. 10
Coach: Mike Tomlin (103-57 overall, 11th season)
2016 record: 11-5, first in AFC North
Scoring offense: 24.9 points per game (10th in NFL)
Total offense: 372.6 yards per game (7th)
Scoring defense: 20.4 points allowed per game (10th)
Total defense: 342.6 yards allowed per game (12th)
Series: Packers lead 19-15
Last meeting: The Packers and Steelers last met during the regular season on Dec. 22, 2013 at Lambeau Field. The visitors prevailed, 38-31, behind a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Cortez Allen and 124 yards and touchdown from tailback Le’Veon Bell. But the game that really matters took place during the 2015 exhibition season. The Packers traveled to Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, and star receiver Jordy Nelson tore his ACL. That’s the game Packers fans will remember.