From a purely physical standpoint, what Ben Roethlisberger has done the past two weeks -- throwing for more than 600 yards despite his ankle nearly being snapped in half by the Browns -- is remarkable. Few quarterbacks in the league would have the fortitude or pain tolerance to stay on the field, let alone put up any meaningful numbers, under the conditions Roethlisberger is facing.
But what was clear Monday night in Pittsburgh's 20-3 loss to San Francisco is that Roethlisberger remains well, well below 100 percent health.
Despite a 330-yard passing night, Roethlisberger took three sacks and threw three interceptions as Pittsburgh struggled with the 49ers' aggressive defense all night. People may underestimate how much of the Steelers' offense relies on Roethlisberger's improvisation -- and how much of that ability depends on Roethlisberger getting out of the pocket.
He was unable to do any of that against San Francisco, so the Steelers must ask themselves the question: Should Big Ben take a seat for the rest of the regular season?
Well, it might not be a "Yes or no" proposition. It's already being reported that Roethlisberger won't play against St. Louis in Week 16 -- a game that, quite frankly, the Steelers should win without much problem, even with Charlie Batch at quarterback. They then head to Cleveland in Week 17, another winnable game no matter who's at quarterback.
From the standpoint of their upcoming opposition, the Steelers don't need to worry too much about giving Roethlisberger off for a couple of weeks. But the AFC playoff race might dictate Pittsburgh's, and Roethlisberger's, decision.
Whether the Steelers said so or not, a huge part of the reason Roethlisberger gave it a go in San Francisco on Monday was that the Ravens lost in San Diego Sunday night. That outcome temporarily bumped Pittsburgh to the top of the AFC North and put it in position to claim the conference's No. 1 seed with a 3-0 close to the season.
But the Steelers' letdown against the 49ers means that Baltimore again has the inside track on the division crown -- so only a Ravens loss would give the Steelers anything to play for over the final two weeks. If Baltimore finishes with two wins, Pittsburgh will be stuck in the No. 5 seed.
Is it really worth risking Roethlisberger's ankle for a couple of potentially meaningless games?
It won't be easy, of course, to talk Roethlisberger into sitting down. Sometimes, though, decisions must be made for the greater good.
With Roethlisberger hobbling around as he did in San Francisco, the Pittsburgh offense has very little chance to succeed in the postseason. The Steelers had to stay in the shotgun all night, because Big Ben could not take snaps under center and drop quickly enough to throw.
That hampered the Steelers' run game -- Rashard Mendenhall rushed for just 64 yards, though San Francisco has shut down just about every running back its faced -- and put a lot of pressure on Pittsburgh's banged-up offensive line, which was missing center Maurkice Pouncey.
The Steelers have plenty of weapons at wide receiver, too, but when teams can get to Roethlisberger as San Francisco did Monday, it eliminates a lot of that unit's effectiveness. Roethlisberger's creativity out of the pocket gives Pittsburgh's athletic receiving corps the opportunity to get free downfield.
A limping Roethlisberger makes the Steelers' offense a lot more average.
Like the Packers with Aaron Rodgers, the Saints with Drew Brees and the Patriots with Tom Brady, Pittsburgh needs Roethlisberger at his best to have any hope of making a Super Bowl run. Sitting Big Ben against St. Louis this Saturday would give him a chance to get closer to full health for the playoffs. There's not much of an upside to playing Roethlisberger in Week 16 -- definitely not enough to justify the Steelers risking their playoff hopes on it.