In Ben Roethlisberger's perfect world, he gets a rich contract extension before the NFL season opens Sept. 7 at Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns and another world championship when it ends Feb. 1 in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz. But if he had to choose between the two, he would take another ring, No. 3, for his big right hand. That is the competitor inside him. Roethlisberger reports today to Saint Vincent College for Steelers training camp and the start of his second decade as the team's quarterback. If that doesn't make you feel old, nothing will. Roethlisberger knows he's fairly deep into the back nine of his football career. Now, more than ever, he is driven by wins and championships. The money is going to come, anyway.
"I like where we are as a team. I really do," Roethlisberger said. "I have a really good feeling about this season."
OK, so Roethlisberger isn't going to say he expects the Steelers to stink. There's just no way. But they went 8-8 and missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons. So is Roethlisberger dreaming or is his optimism legitimate? The opinion here is it's completely legitimate. The Steelers are capable of going 11-5 -- maybe better -- and winning the AFC North Division.
Although the defense is young in spots, it also is much quicker and should be much better than the overmatched unit that last season, on its worst day and the worst in franchise history, gave up 55 points and 610 yards in an embarrassing loss against the New England Patriots. The offense -- Roethlisberger's no-huddle offense -- has a chance to be dynamite. It was fairly explosive in the second half of last season when it helped the team average more than 28 points per game. Who knows what would have happened if Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop had made the 41-yard field goal to beat the San Diego Chargers on the final Sunday and nudge the Steelers into the postseason? Their offense was good enough to win a playoff game, maybe two. It should be even better this season.
"I'm really happy with our O-line," Roethlisberger said. "I think they have a chance to be great."
Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, maybe the Steelers' best free-agent addition of the offseason, was brought in to coach the group. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is back after missing all but eight plays last season because of a knee injury. Roethlisberger was thrilled when Pouncey signed a new six-year, $48 million contract in June. "I told him I can't wait to see my Christmas present this year." Right guard David DeCastro has the look of an All-Pro. Left guard Ramon Foster is solid. Young tackles Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams are a year older and wiser. The line, even without Pouncey, was strong at the end of last season, allowing just seven sacks in the final seven games after allowing 36 in the first 11. That's why Roethlisberger was able to play every offensive snap, the first time he played in all 16 games since 2008.
The improved offensive line is just one reason the running game should have a big impact. Another is the maturity of second-year back Le'Veon Bell, who averaged 24 touches and 104 combined yards in the final eight games last season. Two more reasons are the additions of power back LeGarrette Blount and speed back Dri Archer. "I'm really excited about where the running game is headed to," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger took the wide receivers to California in the spring "to work" and develop chemistry. Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders left as free agents after last season, taking 113 catches, 1,342 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns with them. Team MVP Antonio Brown is back, but free-agent Lance Moore must step in and second-year pro Markus Wheaton must step up. Roethlisberger singled out practice-squad player Justin Brown for his work in the offseason. A healthy Heath Miller also will help after his numbers dropped from 71 catches, 816 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 to 58 catches, 593 yards and one touchdown last season when he came back from a serious knee injury. Roethlisberger has called Miller and Cotchery his two best teammates.
Roethlisberger is excited because the Steelers are expected to use the no-huddle offense as their base offense. It was a big part of their second-half success last season. "The tempo we can do with the no-huddle kind of slows defenses down," Roethlisberger said. "They can't be quite as exotic calling all of their blitzes and doing crazy things because you're playing at such a fast pace. They have to be more basic. That's to our advantage."
Give offensive coordinator Todd Haley credit for setting aside his ego and allowing Roethlisberger to run the game plan they put together during the week. It has helped the two to develop a much closer relationship. Roethlisberger had balked when Haley took over for his pal, Bruce Arians, before the 2012 season. "I enjoy working with [Haley]," Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan. "You see it on the field. You'll continue to see it because my play will be better, the play-calling will be better, everything will be better."
Roethlisberger has two years left on the eight-year, $102 million contract he signed before the 2008 season. He has said many times he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh. "I'd sure like to get something done so I can be set and be done here."
But a new contract isn't on Roethlisberger's mind today. The start of a new season is here. There are games to be won, a championship, perhaps. The Steelers are a 33-1 choice to win Super Bowl XLIX, slightly better than division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati, both 40-1. The Steelers are a long way from being the favorites -- the defending champion Seattle Seahawks are 6-1 -- but Roethlisberger isn't complaining. "I like when they underestimate us. We'll just play and see what happens."
If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it is this: Never bet against Roethlisberger.
That applies this season as much as any season.