Quarterback is a major strength for the Steelers, and the Ravens have never had such talent at the position.
But if Baltimore and Pittsburgh are to hold their places among the AFC elite and have any aspirations of winning Super Bowl XLVII, they will likely need more from their quarterbacks this season.
Call this a vote of confidence in Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. Both passers are capable of taking their game to another level in 2012, and I believe they are going to have to if their clubs are to thrive in January.
Call this acknowledgement that the North's defining units aren't getting any younger.
The Ravens and Steelers have stout defenses, but the age of some key performers is a material concern for both. Baltimore also must face life without vital pass rusher Terrell Suggs for at least some of 2012, if not the entire campaign.
Some might say Roethlisberger is already performing well enough. It’s hard to argue with this. Roethlisberger is 90-37 as an NFL starter, with a 10-4 mark in the postseason. He hardly played poorly in 2011, throwing for 4,077 yards with 21 TDs and 14 picks and completing 63.2 percent of his passes.
But Roethlisberger, in my view, is capable of an MVP-caliber campaign if he’s at top form over a full season.
The primary hurdle to such a lofty-but-reachable goal, however, is his durability.
Roethlisberger suffered a high-ankle sprain scrambling vs. Cleveland in December, and it altered the course of the Steelers’ season. Roethlisberger played 11 days later in a pivotal game at San Francisco, but he was severely compromised; he threw three picks, and the Steelers scored but three points in defeat.
Roethlisberger is a rare talent with the ball in his hands. He is exceptional making plays on the move. His skill, creativity and courage takes the Steelers’ offense to another level, makes it top-class on its very best days. But he has taken a lot of hits over the years with his daring style. The ankle sprain he suffered in December came 6-7 seconds into a pass play.
Roethlisberger isn’t going to change the way he plays; he has said as much. He usually ends up on the right side of risk vs. reward, and he has come this far. It’s unreasonable to believe he’s going to significantly alter his style at age 30, when he still has his fastball and good-enough wheels. The Steelers need those one-of-a-kind jolts he gives their offense.
But the Steelers also need him to be consistently available for 16 games.
Roethlisberger has played in every regular-season game just once in his career, in ’08. Since then, he’s appeared in 15 games twice and a dozen games once, in 2010, when he was suspended for the first four games.
In both of Roethlisberger’s last two 15-start seasons, he’s exceeded 4,000 yards passing. In a 16-start campaign with a strong receiving corps led by WRs Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and TE Heath Miller, Roethlisberger could approach 4,500 yards or more. Will Roethlisberger throwing the ball away earlier a little more or new offensive coordinator Todd Haley emphasizing more short passing help the Steelers' quarterback stay on the field for all 16 games? Well, it couldn't hurt, but it's a balancing act, and not an easy one.
I know this much: Roethlisberger has as many Pro Bowl appearances (two) as Super Bowl rings. He has the talent to be a perennial Pro Bowl fixture and to carry his team deep into the postseason as long as the prime of his career lasts.
Flacco’s ceiling probably isn’t that high, but he’s an above-average starter. He’s thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in all four NFL seasons, and he’s helped lead Baltimore to five postseason wins in that span.
A free agent at season’s end, Flacco figures to receive a long-term deal from the Ravens, and in the unlikely event that doesn’t happen, he’ll have no shortage of suitors.
The Ravens, in my view, would be wise to re-sign Flacco sooner than later. I’m expecting him to improve in 2012 after completing just 57.6 percent of his throws a season ago, and a breakthrough campaign is quite possible. Flacco has above-average skill, and he has the best group of pass catchers he’s ever had in Baltimore. WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin are a fine tandem, with Smith possessing field-stretching speed and Boldin still to be respected on short and intermediate routes. TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are also threats.
Flacco was so very close to leading the Ravens to the AFC title in January, and he wasn’t just a passenger. His best over a full season would, at worst, prop up Baltimore.
At best, it would propel the Ravens forward.