2017 NFL Week 5 Wrap: The bell tolls for Big Ben

WASHINGTON — There’s an old adage in sports: If you’re thinking about retirement, you’re already gone.

Ben Roethlisberger looks gone.

Big Ben just played the worst game of his 14-year NFL career, throwing a career-high five interceptions — two of which were returned for touchdowns — and no touchdowns. He was the main reason the Pittsburgh Steelers got throttled 30-9 by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

Let’s put this performance in historical context. Roethlisberger had only one other game in which he threw multiple pick-sixes, and that was back in 2006 — his lone losing season as a starter. Big Ben is also the first Steeler to toss five picks in a game since Mark Malone (perhaps best known for his amazing mustache and less-than-amazing quarterbacking) in 1987.

Roethlisberger was understandably upset over that awful performance and took full blame for it. But he also said six words you never want to hear from your franchise quarterback.

Maybe I don’t have it anymore.”

If he’s speaking it, it means he’s been thinking it. Like any player in any sport, pro or amateur, once you lose your confidence and/or swagger, you’ve essentially lost the ability to compete at a high level. Once doubt or second-guessing sets in, get ready to hear the boo birds.

This is the latest problem in a season full of them for Pittsburgh. Le’Veon Bell took nearly a month to get going after he skipped his offseason training program because of a contract holdout. There was the clumsy abstaining from the national anthem demonstration in Chicago, followed by an embarrassing overtime loss to the previously winless Bears. Last week, Antonio Brown acted like the diva he is by losing his mind on the sidelines after Roethlisberger missed him on what could have been a big play in a game they won 26-9 anyway.

Though Brown clearly overreacted, there’s plenty of reason to be frustrated with the Steeler offense. A unit this talented and potentially explosive should average way more than 19.8 points and 331.8 yards per game (both rank in the bottom half of the league). The unit that was supposed to carry Pittsburgh this season is actually the one holding them back.

Roethlisberger’s regression is a big reason why. His 75.8 QB rating is more Kordell Stewart than Big Ben, and his 6.5 yards per pass attempt are a career low. His TD/INT ratio is upside down (6 TDs, 7 INTs) and though his 61.5 completion percentage isn’t bad, it’s his lowest since 2008. He’s also taken nine sacks in five games — but then again, Big Ben’s biggest knock has always been that he holds the ball too long.

Roethisberger isn’t entirely to blame. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley (and by proxy, head coach Mike Tomlin) failed Roethlisberger and the offense by running just 20 times and attempting 55 passes Sunday against a Jags defense that ranks as the league’s best against the pass.

But it’s fair to wonder not only if the 35 year-old Roethlisberger wants to carry a team anymore, but if he can. His propensity to hold the ball too long has led to a ton of hard hits, so maybe his body is finally breaking down. His demeanor and his words Sunday reflect a man who perhaps knows he’s at the end of a career that already includes five Pro Bowls and a pair of Super Bowl rings, and doesn’t know if it’s worth this physical and mental toll anymore.

If that’s the case, Pittsburgh might have to undergo an identity change on the fly. The Steelers have won a lot of games and multiple championships by running the ball consistently and playing great defense. Bell is one of few established workhorse backs in the NFL and the Steeler D currently ranks in the top six in points and yards allowed (yes, even with Leonard Fournette’s undeterred 90-yard touchdown Sunday), so Denver’s recipe for overcoming Peyton Manning’s rapid regression in 2015 might also work in the Steel City.

Either way, it doesn’t look like there will be a Big Ben Farewell Tour. His career seems destined to end with a thud on a team in danger of stumbling to the finish line, at least compared to my lofty expectations for them.

Peep this: Pittsburgh is just 3-2 through the easy part of their schedule (Jacksonville is the best team they’ve played so far), and now they have to face the NFL’s last undefeated team in Kansas City, host Cincinnati, and travel to Detroit for a prime-time game before their bye week. Given the way the Steelers have played, a 5-3 record at the midway point is a best case scenario. Games against the Titans, Packers, Patriots, and Texans down the stretch lead me to believe Pittsburgh fans may need to lower expectations to around nine or 10 wins.

The good news for the Steelers is that should be enough to win a mediocre AFC North division that leads the NFL in interceptions by a wide margin. The bad news is they may be seeing the sad, final days of Ben Roethlisberger as a starting quarterback.

Here’s the final update to the NFL Week 5 Recap.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is WTOP's Senior Sports Content Producer, which includes duties as producer and host of the DC Sports Huddle, nightside sports anchor and sports columnist on WTOP.com.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up