In the days leading up to the Steelers fairly crucial Week 8 match-up against AFC North rival and 6-0 Cincinnati this Sunday at Heinz Field, the question about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's availability is still a bit up in the air.
Will he play? Most likely. Will he be 100 percent? Who would be four weeks after suffering a sprained MCL and bruised tibia? Then, of course, the concerns begin to surface about the Bengals perhaps targeting Roethlisberger and trying to take him out. In fact, in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from Tuesday penned by Ed Bouchette, the long-time Steelers beat writer suggests the veteran quarterback might as well wear a target on his back along with his familiar No. 7.
It's absurd for Bouchette to suggest Roethlisberger wear a target, considering the NFL's policy on deviating from uniform protocol (just ask Cameron Heyward, DeAngelo Williams or William Gay). Anyway, if he does play on Sunday, in-addition to his famous No. 7, Roethlisberger will be fitted with a brace for his healing left knee, which is sort of like a bulls-eye for angry pass-rushers. But considering the NFL doesn't allow hits below the waist, one has to wonder how much concern there will be for the Bengals trying to take Roethlisberger out with a dirty hit.
Besides, the possibility of Roethlisberger being targeted by opposing teams like the Bengals seems like a silly thing to worry about. I mean, after all, isn't the objective each and every week to take out the opposing quarterback--especially if he's of the franchise variety? Sure, in an era where concussions are a concern and Bountygate is still in the recent past, you can't really talk openly about hurting a player, but if you're a pass-rusher, and your objective isn't to make a quarterback's life painful--both physically and emotionally--what kind of pass-rusher are you, anyway?
Of course the Bengals are going to be gunning for Roethlisberger if he plays on Sunday, but they would be doing that even if he was 100 percent and hadn't missed a month of action. Let's face it, for all the props given to the likes of Mike Vick and now Landry Jones, an NFL offense sure does look different without a top-flight quarterback running things.
Remember when Steelers faithful were bursting at the seams with hope for Week 1, when it appeared Tom Brady would miss the first month due to a suspension? They were happy because that would have been a very big deal. Unfortunately, Brady won his appeal, played in the game and threw four touchdown passes in a 28-21 Patriots victory. This is just an educated guess, but Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady's backup who was slated to play against Pittsburgh on September 10 if the Deflategate evidence wasn't deemed flimsy by the courts, probably would have thrown a few less touchdowns that night.
The Bengals defenders are fully aware of Roethlisberger's injury and what knee was compromised. And even if guys like Carlos Dunlap have trouble telling his left from his right (let's face it, we're talking about the Bengals), Cincinnati has people who can point things out on the sidelines with the help of visual aids such as those Polaroid pictures fans used to accuse Roethlisberger of not studying.
Sure, the Bengals defense has recorded 17 sacks this season (Dunlap has 6.5 all by his lonesome), but Roethlisberger has made a career out of avoiding pressure and making plays downfield. While quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Brady will probably always get more props in the "intense studying and very demanding of their teammates" department, Roethlisberger will always be known as the modern-day John Elway, a quarterback who, yes, will scramble out of the pocket at the first sign of trouble, but ain't looking to beat you with his legs; he's looking to beat your defensive back who lost track of his receiver after your pass-rusher failed to bring him to the turf.
And guess what? Roethlisberger will have his full skill-position arsenal available to him this Sunday, now that Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant served their drug-related suspensions and have long-since joined Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, Markus Wheaton and Co. on the active roster.
It would be whistling past the graveyard to not point out that both Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum will miss the Cincinnati game, but like an unidentified Ravens pass-rusher said following the 2008 AFC Championship game, "It's almost like Roethlisberger wants you to beat your man." So, go head, Dunlap and friends, get by your opposing offensive linemen, No. 7 welcomes it.
Obviously, Roethlisberger will be a bit compromised, as his MCL sprain probably still needs a few more weeks to fully mend. But we're talking about a man who has won games with sprained knees, fractured feet, high ankle sprains, a sprained SC joint, and he once beat the Ravens on Sunday Night Football with his nose splattered all over his face. Everyone knows how much Roethlisberger loves to embellish his injuries (he's like a modern-day Terry Bradshaw in that regard); don't you think he'd love nothing more than to put four touchdown passes on the Bengals after recovering from the worst MCL sprain/bruised tibia in the history of mankind?
And let's not forget, Sunday will be the day after Halloween, and we all know what happens to unbeaten teams that come to Heinz Field on or near that holiday.
With all that in mind, go ahead, Bengals, target Ben Roethlisberger this Sunday, but you better take your best shot--and you better not miss.