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MIRZA ZUKIC: It all starts with Ben, Troy

by on August 30, 2013 10:50 AM

Maybe Ben Roethlisberger knows something the rest of us outside the Pittsburgh Steelers’ locker room don’t.

Or maybe he’s just seasoned enough to know better than to worry too much about preseason results.

Either way, Roethlisberger is not troubled by the fact the Steelers wrapped up a winless preseason with a 25-10 loss Thursday to the Carolina Panthers.

In fact, the veteran quarterback embraced outsiders’ low expectations that are sure to come following an 0-4 preseason, especially for a franchise many consider to be in rebuilding mode.

“(As a) matter of fact, I don’t want to talk too much about (the season) because I like that we’re still the underdogs and we’re the nobody team and everyone’s counting us out,” Roethlisberger said after Thursday’s preseason finale, in which he did not play. “That’s still fine with me.”

That may be so, but from the outside looking in, it’s hard to take away many positives from a disappointing month of preseason football for the Steelers.

The special teams unit was about as bad at it gets. There are more question marks in the running game after the preseason than at the start of training camp. The young, promising offensive line was average at best, and the defensive front seven largely struggled to apply pressure on quarterbacks, a lingering problem from last year.

It all sounds very gloomy and gives the impression the Steelers could be in for a trying season.

But maybe the most important thing we learned from the preseason was that Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are still playing at a high level.

Sure, it might be an afterthought to fans because that’s what they’ve come to expect, but that’s huge.

Roethlisberger’s and Polamalu’s individual efforts could give the Steelers an extra win or two this season they wouldn’t have otherwise. Provided both stay healthy, of course.

Statistics notwithstanding, Roethlisberger played well in his limited time this preseason while showing a greater comfort level in his second year of running Todd Haley’s offense. And he seems to have his mid-season touch.

In each of the Steelers’ home preseason games, Roethlisberger fired a precisely placed pass at the front pylon of the end zone, putting it in the perfect spot where only his receiver could get to it. Neither play resulted in what would have been a highlight-reel touchdown because they receivers couldn’t stay in bounds.

But it’s a good sign for the Steelers indicating Roethlisberger is healthy and still very much on top of his game.

Meanwhile, Polamalu’s great demise on the opposite side of the ball has been greatly exaggerated by some.

Even though he didn’t play Thursday in Charlotte, Polamalu did enough in the first three games to remind us why he’s considered one of the premier defenders in the NFL.

Like Roethlisberger, Polamalu is also fully healed from the nagging injuries that limited him greatly over the past two seasons.

He might have lost a step with age, but Polamalu showed he’s still got enough speed and range to remain one of the best safeties in the NFL. Despite his history of injuries, he continues to play with the same recklessness and aggressiveness that will make quarterbacks think twice before throwing across the middle.

Those are little things that can’t be measured in the box score, but they make a difference in a game. They limit opposing offenses. They intimidate opposing offenses.

There were other positives to build on as well.

Starting receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders were impressive in small doses, and both seem ready for breakout seasons. Although he ended the preseason on a sour note with a pair of dropped passes in Thursday’s loss, promising rookie Markus Wheaton has made an impression.

Another rookie, linebacker Jarvis Jones, and has proven he belongs. He has taken Steeler Nation by storm and quickly made the fans forget about James Harrison.

Sure, there were probably others, too, but it still all starts with Big Ben and Polamalu.

With a healthy and productive Roethlisberger leading the offense and Polamalu doing the same on defense, the Steelers are never out of a game.

That just might be enough for Pittsburgh to surprise some people this season. But Big Ben won’t be one of them.

PHOTO: The Steelers' Reggie Dunn was tackled in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter Thursday. 

Mirza Zukic is a sports writer that primarily covers the Pittsburgh Steelers and is the Gazette's track and field beat writer.
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