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Ben Roethlisberger points the way for Steelers’ new generation

No. 7 continues to exemplify the grit needed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

During the gauntlet of a 17-game NFL season, Ben Roethlisberger has been the target of much criticism, generally focusing on the topic of his diminished skills. Additionally, many consider his delayed retirement as an unwelcome barrier to the Steelers' inevitable transition.

But these critiques tend to ignore the intangible leadership role that Roethlisberger brings to the table, particularly during these past two weeks when many fans expected the Black-and-Gold's season to reach a dismal ending. That key role and the loyalty it inspires has always carried considerable weight with the Rooney family through the years.

For Pittsburgh's new generation of stars — Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Chase Claypool and others — there's no substitute for the experience of cutting their teeth in the NFL on a team with a Hall of Fame quarterback in their huddle — the same Super Bowl champ they watched on TV as youngsters. In the process of dispatching the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens to their off-season pursuits, Big Ben showed the new breed what it takes and truly means to wear the black and gold.

Most importantly, the standard of this organization means never quitting, not even when you're 39 years old, your knees are aching and your starting lineup includes a bunch of players that few fans had ever seen before the beginning of the 2021 season.

There's no denying this edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a motley crew that includes a number of players in the starting lineup strictly because the team lacks replacements. But Big Ben's leadership — plus the shining examples of genuine Steelers football provided by Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Mr. Clutch (aka Chris Boswell) — have brought this team together and encouraged them to imagine the possibilities when they hang together and refuse to surrender. The roots of this ragged, never-say-die credo were prefaced earlier in the season when the Steelers staged furious-but-unsuccessful rallies after falling behind by what appeared to be hopeless margins to the Chargers and Minnesota Vikings.

No matter what happens when the Steelers meet the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night, this team's uncanny ability to rally when all hope seems lost can be a source of pride and a starting point for the players returning next season. And for Steelers Nation, this unexpected playoff berth will help to take some of the sting out of a mostly forgettable regular season.

The Sunday night matchup between the L.A. Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders that finally punched Pittsburgh's playoff ticket was nerve-wracking to watch, but it was typical of what we've seen throughout the league this year. As fans of the Indianapolis Colts can attest, very few teams have met expectations this season while ridiculous upsets have been prevalent. When we consider how many games the Steelers allowed to slip through their hands in 2021, the distance between where they are today and where they need to go doesn't seem nearly as far as it did just a couple of weeks ago after they were pummeled by the Chiefs.

To begin with, it's miraculous that Pittsburgh qualified for the playoffs. But it'll be an even greater miracle if the Steelers somehow manage to avenge that 36-10 blowout. Regardless of how the season ends, Ben Roethlisberger might have answered the question of why he decided to return to take snaps behind a raw and untested OL. Apparently, No. 7 wasn’t quite ready to stop being a leader of men. By that standard, Ben has already accomplished what he set out to do in early September.

Even while failing to reach the standard of play he set during his heyday, Roethlisberger has been a constant inspiration and tutor for the Steelers he’ll leave behind. He will walk away from this game exactly the way he came in — playing it tough and leaving everything he's got on the gridiron.