BEN ROETHLISBERGER whined about Todd Haley replacing his buddy Bruce Arians and seemed to resist changes to the system in 2012. However, he gradually bought in, but then he hurt his shoulder at Kansas City and things went to the nether regions (2-5 down the stretch). He's saying the right things about Haley and the offense this year and he might get a little more help with rookie LE'VEON BELL and the running game. However, Mike Wallace is gone and HEATH MILLER isn't likely going to be ready to play in the opener after shredding his knee in the season finale. ANTONIO BROWN is going to have to really step it up from an okay 2012 season.
Assuming he has recovered from last season's injury (Ben later admitted he wasn't ready and he came back too soon), Ben should still be one of the best QBs in the NFL again this year. It's funny that in a season when he got hit and sacked much less often (due to Haley's system), he suffered a serious injury that destroyed the season (No, that's not funny!). If he can stay healthy, he's got a couple years left as a dominating QB. I think, barring injury, he's going to have a big year.
In my 2012 prediction, I called for 11-5, with this comment: "This team goes as far as Ben carries them this year. More so than in previous seasons." At 5-3 with a big Monday Night win at the Giants, the Steelers were being touted as Super Bowl contenders. Then Ben got hurt and the season fell apart; he wasn't very good after he came back, killing them with key fourth quarter interceptions. Once again this year, with an aging defense, Ben is the key to a playoff season.
Charlie Batch (who was a rookie starting QB for the Lions during Barry Sanders' rookie season), was pushed into unofficial retirement this off season. He had spent the past eight seasons on the Steelers' bench, appearing in 31 games. Though Mike Tomlin favored first, Dennis Dixon, then Byron Leftwich, over Batch, Charlie was a capable fill-in who actually got less injury-prone over the years, and he was always a positive guy on the field and in the locker room. I hope he coaches somewhere: he's a good guy (I'll avoid a Terell Pryor comment here...).
TRIVIA: Who was the first QB taken after Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf went 1-2 in 1998? Good ol' Charlie Batch, in the second round.
Also gone is Byron Leftwich, who spent four seasons (with an aborted attempt to start in Tampa Bay mixed in) in the black and gold. Byron, who took about ten seconds to load up and release the ball, could NOT stay healthy, missing the entire 2011 season and getting injured when he was slated to fill in for Ben R. in two others. An okay QB, he won't really be missed.
The new #2 man this year is BRUCE GRADKOWSKI. Gradkowski was the Tampa Bay starter back in 2006 after Chris Simms ruptured his spleen. He lost the job to Tim Rattay, then in 2007 to Luke McCown. He went on to be a backup in Cleveland and Cincy. And of course, with Oakland in 1998, he was AFC Offensive Player of the Week when he led a ridiculous comeback in Pittsburgh, throwing for 308 yards and 3 TDs. It was a horrific loss, with Ben continuing to lead scoring drives and the D giving up score after score.
(Joe Burnett, who was well ahead of fellow rookie Bryant McFadden on the depth chart, came into the game late and on his first play, dropped an INT that hit him in the chest. The Raiders went on to the winning score. Burnett, who looked to be on his way to more PT in 2010, was cut during that season, instead. You could see his entire career turn on that one play. He's currently in the CFL).
Gradkowski is an established veteran who, at 30, is a couple years younger than Batch and Leftwich. He's also been mostly unsuccessful as a starter, which is why he's a backup. That said, I think he'll be a competent fill in for a game or two if Ben goes down, but I'm not convinced he's an improvement over Batch.
The Steelers took LANDRY JONES in the fourth round. The Oklahoma Sooner was one of the top QBs in the country in 2011 before he had a late season slump. He then had a pretty good (but not Heisman quality) senior season (many projected him as a first round pick midway through the 2011 season). So, he fell to Pittsburgh in the fourth round. The Steelers obviously have a couple years to try and develop him into a quality NFL QB, with Gradkowski manning the two spot in the interim. I liked Dennis Dixon (reunited with Oregon coach Chip Kelly this year in Philadelphia). And I was for Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson last year (he's not on a roster). I'd like to see Pittsburgh find a young guy to try and bring along. Hopefully Jones is the one.
JOHN PARKER WILSON is playing well in camp. However, the former Crimson Tide star hasn't thrown a pass in four NFL seasons and seems to be a long shot.
As always, it's all about Ben. Pittsburgh usually has a solid #2 (though we seem to have to play our #3 guy far too often: Brian St. Pierre?), and I think Gradkowski fits the bill. Certainly, I hope Jones doesn't take a snap this year. If Ben is on his game (and he should be, this is a good unit.
GRADE - A-
HERE WE GO STEELERS!