- Scott Brown, ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter
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PITTSBURGH -- ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski recently ranked all of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is sixth on his list after Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck.
"Jaws" performed his usual exhaustive film review in compiling his list, and he offered strong praise for Roethlisberger as well as an astonishing statistic:
I thought Big Ben had one of his best seasons in 2013. We all know he has a unique skill set, with the ability to be a pocket passer but also extend the play when it's necessary. Ultimately, there are two sets of numbers that stand out to me for Roethlisberger. The first is that he has 156 career starts and has won 67 percent of them. That's astonishing. The second is that veteran quarterbacks understand the necessity of coming away with touchdowns and not field goals in the red zone. In the last two seasons, Roethlisberger has 27 TDs and zero INTs inside the 20-yard line."
You can debate where Roethlisberger ranks among NFL quarterback but one thing that can't be disputed: Big Ben is the player the Steeler can least afford to lose for an extended period in 2014.
The 11th-year veteran makes the no-huddle attack go and that will again be an important component of the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger, who turned 32 in March, is still playing at a high level and he is coming off a season in which he took every snap. Bruce Gradkowski is a capable backup but nothing would help the Steelers more as they try to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus than if Gradkowski spends most if not all of the upcoming season on the sidelines.
Here are four other players whom the Steelers cannot afford to lose this season.
WR Antonio Brown: The Steelers' wide receivers become average if Brown is sidelined by a significant injury. The reigning Steelers MVP caught 110 passes for a team-record 1,499 yards last season and he will again make the other wideouts better simply because of the attention he commands from opposing defenses.
C Maurkice Pouncey: The Steelers got lucky that Fernando Velasco and later Cody Wallace played so capably at center after Pouncey tore his ACL eight plays into last season. They cannot count on that fortune again if Pouncey goes down. The three-time Pro Bowler is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line, and he is eager to reward the Steelers for the lucrative contract extension they gave him last month.
LB Lawrence Timmons: Durable and incredibly productive, Timmons should have at least one Pro Bowl on his resume by now. He will call the defense until rookie Ryan Shazier is ready to assume that responsibility. Simply getting lined up properly proved to be a problem for the defense after Larry Foote went down in the 2013 opener with a season-ending arm injury.
DE Cameron Heyward: The 2011 first-round pick is the one proven commodity that the Steelers have at defensive end. Heyward pushed his way into the starting lineup after the fourth game of last season, and he led the Steelers with 31 quarterback pressures in 2013 and tied for the team lead with five sacks. To say there is a significant drop-off after Heyward at defensive end is an understatement.