As far as legacy goes, this could be one of the defining moments in Ben Roethlisberger’s career if he is able to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory today over the Broncos on the road in Denver, facing the number one seed.
Of course, Roethlisberger was in this position once before, trying to take a sixth seed all the way to the Super Bowl, and having to go through the top seed to do it. The Steelers became the first sixth seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl a decade ago in Super Bowl XL following the 2005 season.
10 years later, however, he has no juggernaut defense behind him, no perennial All-Pros or future Hall of Famers ready and able to shut down an opposing offense. He doesn’t have Jerome Bettis to carry the load for him or Hines Ward to throw to, or even quite the same offensive line, especially due to injuries.
And today, he doesn’t even have their modern equivalents. Le’Veon Bell has already been on injured reserve for months, and the Steelers are without DeAngelo Williams again, facing a defense that gave up 3.4 yards per carry during the season.
Antonio Brown’s absence, of course, is the centerpiece of the Steelers’ misfortune, and the primary reason that this game will likely be placed squarely on Roethlisberger’s injured throwing shoulder. Pittsburgh has not even played a game without their All-Pro wide receiver for over three seasons.
No other wide receiver on this roster has ever known or understood what it is like to be “the guy”, because Brown has been that guy for the entire time that they have been here, and thus it is impossible to predict how the young players, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant in particular, will be able to respond.
With Darrius Heyward-Bey as a complementary piece and Sammie Coates at least dressing, it will be up to Roethlisberger to get this group right and ready to take on arguably the best secondary in the NFL right now—one that is quite different from the last time the Steelers played the Broncos and beat them, thanks largely to a big game from Brown.
One of Roethlisberger’s biggest challenges may be himself this evening—that is, he will have to fight against his instincts, to play more conservatively, but also more creatively, taking advantage of whatever he is given underneath, and that may mean relying on players like Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jesse James.
Should he manage to pull the Steelers past this round and into the AFC Championship game against the Patriots, I think that that will say a lot about the legacy that he leaves behind in this game—perhaps not in Pittsburgh, but as it pertains to his broader perception.
The fact is that the team has not had much success since the offense has become the bigger focal point. They won their first playoff game since 2010 just last week, and could reach their first AFC Championship game in just as long after today. And you have to figure that if that should come to pass, it will be because Roethlisberger carried them on his shoulders.