Facing a Make-or-Break Season, the Steelers Need a Hard Look in the Mirror
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sits on his helmet at practice during NFL football training camp in Latrobe, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 . (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

LATROBE, Pennsylvania — Ben Roethlisberger left practice early and entered the concussion protocol on Tuesday. But that’s not a very big deal. Roethlisberger was not scheduled to play in Thursday night’s preseason game against the Packers, anyway. The early exit after a rough collision with the ground appears to have been precautionary, and Big Ben is renowned for his ability to suffer what looks to be a debilitating injury one moment only to return to action a few moments later.

Le’Veon Bell, of course, remains AWOL, and there aren’t even whispers about murmurs about rumors about contract talks or his eventual return. This is also not a very big deal, because the Steelers don’t do contract extensions for holdouts; therefore, Bell doesn’t do offseason activities, and we’ve all seen this dance routine before.

Antonio Brown has been an extremely limited participant in practice since suffering a quad injury almost two weeks ago. This, too, is not a very big deal; head coach Mike Tomlin said that Brown did not re-aggravate the injury and responded to concerns about his limited reps with: “It’s August.”

Brown also ripped longtime Steelers beat writer Ed Bouchette for reporting that Brown “limped off the field” after individual drills earlier this week; Brown did in fact walk off the field after individual drills, but limping is in the eye of the beholder. This is an infinitesimally small deal: To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, players can tweet whatever they want about us, as long as they spell our names right.

That’s three not-very-big deals, three-and-a-quarter if you are worried about Brown’s headspace or the ability of random fans to sneak unnoticed onto the Steelers practice field during warm-ups.

But those three not-very-big deals involve the only three Steelers who really matter, at least from a Super Bowl conversation standpoint.

Antonio Brown has gone at a slower pace in training camp this year as he tries to recover from a relatively minor leg strain.

Antonio Brown has gone at a slower pace in training camp this year as he tries to recover from a relatively minor leg strain.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press

How many not-very-big deals stack up to make one really big deal?

When I visited the Steelers last week, Bell was nowhere to be seen (of course), Brown spent team drills doing one-on-one work on a distant practice field, and Roethlisberger participated in as many reps as you would expect an established 36-year-old starter to take.

The Steelers didn’t look sharp, but you can’t read much into any training camp practice, especially when most of the drills involve Joshua Dobbs handing off to Fitzgerald Toussaint or throwing to Quadree Henderson.

But the Steelers have gone through a lot of practices without Brown and Bell this summer, and they will now miss Roethlisberger for a spell. They’re even resting backup quarterback Landry Jones on Thursday night, in stark contrast to the Packers, who are eager to let Aaron Rodgers shake the dust off. The two perennial powerhouses are taking radically different approaches in their mid-August preparations.

The Steelers are coming off a 13-win season and four straight playoff appearances. Most roster spots are set, and the top veterans have little to prove. That’s the biggest reason for Steelers fans to take a cue from Rodgers and R-E-L-A-X through the August injury-and-holdout doldrums.

It’s also the biggest reason for Pittsburgh fans to worry.

The Steelers have operated at suboptimal capacity for years. They might lose an early game because Bell isn’t quite at full throttle. They may lose a midseason game to Roethlisberger’s annual injury. They reach the playoffs and run into either the Patriots at their usual peak efficiency or some Jaguars/Ravens team that’s leaner and hungrier.

Then the Steelers return to training camp the next year and do things just about the same way they did the previous year. It’s a system that yields success that the Browns, Bills or Jets can only wish for. But the Steelers never quite close ground on the Patriots. And the system doesn’t appear to bring out the best, or get the most out of, the NFL‘s best triplets.

Now in his sixth season with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, Mike Tomlin presides over a training camp that is familiar but perhaps not equipped to get past their top AFC competition.

Now in his sixth season with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, Mike Tomlin presides over a training camp that is familiar but perhaps not equipped to get past their top AFC competition.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press

And maybe that’s why this is the time for the team to take a long look at how their philosophy fits together and how they are making use of those three most valuable assets.

The Steelers should consider how Roethlisberger’s offseason is structured. Other veterans have their training camp regimens calibrated down to the rep, but Big Ben often looks like a 1970s quarterback in an undershirt chucking footballs into trash barrels. Freak accidents happen, but Roethlisberger is in a strange netherspace where he sometimes gets the full bubble-wrap treatment but also winds up in drills intense enough to force him to hit the deck.

Sure, Roethlisberger will be fine, probably even great. But are the Steelers doing everything to make sure he is great enough?

As for Brown, the Steelers are letting him be himself. That’s swell: When healthy, he’s one of the hardest practicing players in the NFL. But if the veteran stars are allowed to do their own thing, maybe Bell deserves a long-term deal so he can make his own splashy helicopter entrances.

Or maybe the Steelers are hardcore disciplinarians forging a no-nonsense culture, and there is no place for Bell’s holdout. In that case, maybe there should also be no place for helicopters and Twitter beefs, to say nothing of coming within a country mile of Roethlisberger in a full-team drill.

No matter what they decide, the Steelers are in need of some self-reflection, especially with what they could accomplish this season.

Look beyond the triplets, and the Steelers may have their deepest roster in years. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington lead a weapon-laden skill-position corps. With the additions of veteran Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds, the Steelers secondary hasn’t looked this good since Troy Polamalu retired.

The risk for the Steelers isn’t Roethlisberger’s injury or age, Brown’s injury or quirkiness or Bell’s conditioning/enthusiasm when he returns. The risk is that Tomlin and his three stars have gotten used to doing their own things and the whole situation has gotten a little stale, but the problem won’t really roost until the Patriots are once again just a teensy bit better than the Steelers in mid-December (and/or mid-January).

The risk is that the Steelers will squander their last chance to win a Super Bowl with Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown because of preseason sloppiness and stubbornness.

That’s a really, really big deal.

                      

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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