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Ben Roethlisberger always has been tough to tackle in the pocket, an escape artist at football's most important position.

We've become so accustomed to watching the Steelers quarterback slip free of a sack and turn it into a touchdown that it was stunning to see him struggle Sunday in the loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

What was most revealing was watching Roethlisberger respond to his first career five-interception game with a flippant statement: “Maybe I don't have it anymore.”

Roethlisberger said it without provocation but wasn't prepared for the reaction caused by that comment, one he admitted Wednesday was made out of frustration.

“To me, that's the hardest thing about having a bad game, letting the fans down, letting my teammates down,” Roethlisberger said. “That's what bothers me the most. It's hard to do that. It's frustrating. That bothers me way more than my own pride and things.”

NFL analysts crucified Roethlisberger for that remark, for contemplating retirement in the offseason and for publicly criticizing running back Le'Veon Bell and receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant.

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith urged Roethlisberger to retire, saying, “He has been playing like someone who doesn't want to play” and “it appears that his love for the game has dissipated.”

Pride was wounded: That struck a chord with Roethlisberger, whose cocksure attempt to turn the tables on the media Wednesday proved only his pride has been wounded.

“That's fine. They can question me. I don't question myself. The ones that are close to me don't question me. That's what matters,” Roethlisberger said. “No offense to any of you guys, but it doesn't really matter to me how you guys question me or the ‘professional talking heads' on the other sports networks that are out there that are supposed experts on things like that.”

Roethlisberger was reminded he's the one who opened Pandora's box. He never has shied away from taking blame for a loss, but this was different. This was the franchise quarterback and team captain, a future Hall of Famer, publicly questioning whether his best days in the NFL are behind him.

But that's Big Ben. He's a master of shifting the storyline, just as he did when asked if the Steelers needed a shakeup to wake up.

“We're still atop the AFC North. We're still right there in the hunt in the AFC,” Roethlisberger said. “I think you guys are much more panicked than we are. As you can see, I'm not real shaken by last week or nervous or worried. We're ready to play football this week.”

Taken aback: Even so, he was taken aback that anyone would question his confidence, let alone his commitment.

“To be confident?” Roethlisberger said. “Two Super Bowls, 100-and-some wins, 300-some — I don't even know my stats — but I've been playing this game longer than you've probably been covering it.”

My guess is Big Ben is well aware he has 126 victories and 307 touchdowns in his career, especially after he admitted to looking up the history of passers with five-pick games.

But it's not Roethlisberger's confidence that should be a concern. Rather, it's the desire to disprove his critics.

Hoping for repeat of last season: Last season, he answered one of his worst performances (at Philadelphia) with his best. He completed 22 of 27 passes (81.5 percent) for 300 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs, who the Steelers visit Sunday.

Roethlisberger compared it to driving without a rearview mirror, making the bad game disappear.

That's what escape artists do: divert your attention while they work their magic.

If Big Ben still has it — and I believe he does — he has all the motivation in the world to show it Sunday.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

 

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