If it weren’t for Alex Smith’s comeback story after missing nearly two years with a gruesome leg injury, Pittsburgh Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger might be the favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.
Roethlisberger missed 14 games last season with an injury. He’ll turn 39 during this season, and has openly discussed retiring for several years. Without him, the Steelers finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. It seemed as good a time as any for Roethlisberger to make good on his flirtations with retirement.
Instead, though, he came back this season healthy and playing better than he has in years. He’s completing 69 percent of his passes, which would be a career-high if he manages to keep it up the rest of the season. He’s also thrown 11 touchdown passes with just one interception. And, most importantly, his team is winning – the Steelers are 5-0, one of only three unbeaten teams remaining in the league.
A huge part of Roethlisberger’s success has been his talented group of receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster is already an established star, and he leads the team with 23 catches. But Chase Claypool and James Washington have brought new dimensions to the team’s offense. Claypool has 17 catches and leads the team with 335 yards – nearly 20 yards per catch. He’s also leading the team with four touchdown receptions. Washington has 185 yards and two touchdowns and Smith-Schuster has three touchdowns.
They’re complemented by a strong running game led by James Conner. Conner has rushed for 369 yards and four touchdowns and averages nearly five yards per carry.
The offensive line does need to work on protecting Roethlisberger a little better though. He’s been sacked eight times in five games, but that’s been a theme throughout his career – he's been sacked 20 or more times in 14 of his 16 seasons.
The team’s defense, in true Pittsburgh fashion, has been stingy. The Steelers have allowed the fewest points in the league at 94.
The biggest adjustment for Roethlisberger, though, might simply be getting along with his teammates. In recent seasons, he’s publicly sniped at former teammates including Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. He’s also, at times, had clashes with coaches over play calls and style. Those tensions seem to have gone away late in his career, though, and there have been reports of a seemingly more harmonious Roethlisberger this season.
Although Pittsburgh’s perfect record looks pristine, there are still questions. All five wins have been against sub-.500 teams. They’ll have a better idea whether they can end their playoff drought in the next two weeks. They face undefeated Tennessee on October 25 and rival Baltimore, who is just a half game behind in the standings at 5-1, on November 1.