Steelers' Big Ben primed for MVP-caliber season

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be traveling to Foxboro this weekend to kick off their 2019 campaign. After an offseason filled with talk, Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to silence the critics.

There's a lot to forget about the 2018 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was yet another season where the team was loaded with talent, only to fail expectations yet again. This time, they even failed to make the postseason.

For Ben Roethlisberger, he actually set new career-high numbers in passing yards (5,129) and touchdown passes (34). Ben became just the seventh quarterback to eclipse 5,000 passing yards in a single season. He also finished with a quarterback rating of 96.5, over two points higher than his career average. 

As great as those stats are, Ben probably wants to forget about 2018 as well. Stats aren't important to Big Ben. At the beginning of training camp in 2019, he said some pretty straight-forward things about how important stats are compared to winning. 

I will do whatever it takes to win. I would rather throw for five yards and win than 500 and lose. I’ll just take a win. Whatever we need to win football games and make the playoffs and try to win a Super Bowl is what I am here for.

Another part of 2018 that Ben probably wants to leave behind is the demise of the relationship between him and All-Pro receiver and now former-teammate Antonio Brown. Ben became the center of much criticism of certain members of the national media in the process. 

The most brought up instance where Ben is considered to be at fault is when he publicly criticized the way Brown ran a drag route on a crucial play late in the game against Denver. Roethlisberger threw an interception on the play to a defensive lineman. The public comments were made on his weekly radio show with 93.7 The Fan, one of Pittsburgh's local sports stations.

In the same edition of the radio show, he also criticized the way James Washington ran a go route, saying that if he would have ran through the ball instead of diving, it not only would been easier to catch, but could have likely resulted in a touchdown. 

When Antonio Brown was forcing his way out of Pittsburgh, many criticized Roethlisberger's leadership ability. Shannon Sharpe of FS1 even went as far to say on a January 2nd, 2019 episode of Undisputed that Ben "might be an all-time worst leader at that position."

Throughout most of the offseason, Big Ben remained quiet. He finally made his first public comments on the whole situation with Brown in an interview with Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV sports director Bob Pompeani in May. In the interview, he admitted regret in calling out Brown publicly because "if that's what ruined our friendship and our relationship, then I am truly and genuinely sorry about that." 

He gave similar answers in a more recent interview with NBC's Michelle Tafoya, but included the caveat that James Washington appreciated the public critique, taking it as constructive criticism. This, of course, led to more criticism by the national media, claiming that adding James Washington's reaction in his answer to the question was taking a backhanded dig at Antonio Brown. 

Throughout the months of criticism, Ben Roethlisberger has remained focused, has openly expressed his renewed love for football, and how much he wants to win. And winning is the exact way to shut up all of the critics. 

Ben is still playing at a high level, even at 37 years old. He's coming off a monster year statistically, and he has developed great chemistry with third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off a breakout season in 2018. 

Many wonder just how good the Steelers' offense can be without Antonio Brown. Despite how much of a headache he could be or how big of a problem he was in the locker room, he was massively productive. One player cannot fill that void alone. 

After another stellar preseason, James Washington is showing that he may be capable of helping pick up the slack left with Brown's departure. Free agent acquisition Donte Moncrief could also help out, along with rookie Diontae Johnson. And with the way Pittsburgh's offense will operate in 2019, the Steelers don't need one guy to replace Antonio Brown's production.

As great as Antonio Brown is, Ben won't have to feel pressured to force targets to a guy like Brown. Roethlisberger threw 16 interceptions in 2018. That's a pretty high number, but still threw interceptions at a lesser rate than his career average of 2.7%. Four of Ben's interceptions in 2018 were thrown in the red zone, all of which were intended for Antonio Brown.

The Steelers' offense is centered around a heavy pass attack, and Ben Roethlisberger is very efficient in the current system under Randy Fichtner. Ben also thrives when he is free to spread the ball around and take the safe check-downs or drag routes. He also was tied for the quickest time-to-throw in the NFL in 2018, averaging 2.55 seconds from snap-to-pass. 

In today's day in age, intangibles are unpopular when valuing players. Analytics drive the narrative in just about everything in sports. However, I have to believe that Big Ben is motivated to win a little more this season.

Ben may have been silent most of the offseason, but we all know he's heard the criticism from the national media. He's heard the hype surrounding the Cleveland Browns. He's heard about the harsh words on social media from Antonio Brown towards himself and other teammates. 

Winning is enough motivation for Big Ben to want to compete at a high level. But I've got to believe that there's a bit extra motivation to want to show that he wasn't the problem in Pittsburgh; that he isn't the catalyst that led to the departure of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell.

If Roethlisberger can lead the Steelers to a winning season, especially a deep playoff run, it will prove the Steelers didn't have to be the most talented team to be successful. It will also prove that Ben wasn't a main factor in the noise and drama in 2018.

Ben has also made certain strides to focus more on football. Recently, it was announced that Ben will not be doing his weekly radio show that got him into trouble before. He also has shown great leadership with his teammates in training camp and preseason. 

A great display of this leadership is helping his teammates cope with the sudden death of receivers coach Darryl Drake. He helped lead the team in prayer all together and these photos were captured of him consoling JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Roethlisberger’s teammates made their voices heard on how they feel about Ben’s leadership throughout the offseason. A wide range of teammates like Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, along with defensive players like Ryan Shazier and former teammate James Harrison, many teammates feel that Ben is the guy that can lead them to another Super Bowl run.

As for all of Ben’s current teammates, they just voted for him to be one of their four captains to help lead this team in the 2019 season.

If the Steelers get back to being a Super Bowl contender in 2019, and Ben has a great season statistically, he will give voters no choice but to consider him for MVP. I don't believe personal awards are important to Ben. He would much rather hoist a Lombardi than bring home another passing title or an MVP award. 

The Pittsburgh front office has pushed all of their chips in on Big Ben being their guy. They were content with not giving Le'Veon Bell the contract he desired and severing ties with Antonio Brown and his toxic behavior. 

The front office has done a great job of addressing the defense by bringing in guys like Mark Barron and Steven Nelson in free agency and trading up in the draft for Devin Bush. With the defense stronger, an elite offensive line, and still plenty of talent at the skill positions, Ben will prove to be an MVP-caliber player if the Steelers succeed in 2019. 

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