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Roethlisberger, 37, to remain with Steelers through 2021

Big Ben inks extension

FILE – In this Oct. 1, 2017, file photo, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) celebrates a touchdown by running back Le’Veon Bell during the first half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore. The Pittsburgh Steelers have reiterated repeatedly during an eventful offseason that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains the team’s unquestioned leader. They’ve handed him a new deal to prove it. The Steelers and the two-time Super Bowl winner agreed to terms on a contract extension Wednesday, April 24, 2019, that will keep Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

By Will Graves

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers have reiterated repeatedly during an eventful offseason that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains the team’s unquestioned leader. They have handed him a new deal to prove it.

The Steelers and the two-time Super Bowl winner agreed to terms on a contract extension Wednesday that will keep Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh through the 2021 season. Roethlisberger had been set to enter the final year of a contract he signed in 2015. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Roethlisberger figures to get a significant pay bump over the $12 million he was due (with a $23 million cap hit) in 2019.

“It has always been a goal to play my entire career in Pittsburgh,” Roethlisberger said in a statement. “This is home for me and my family, and we love this city. I am as excited to be a Steeler in Year 16 as I was when they drafted me. They will get my absolute best.”

The deal gives Pittsburgh some stability going forward after the high-profile departures of wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. Brown pouted his way into a trade with the Oakland Raiders in March while Bell signed with the New York Jets as a free agent after sitting out all of 2018 when he opted not to sign his franchise tender.

Roethlisberger, who turned 37 last month, is coming off the finest statistical season of his 15-year career. His 5,129 yards passing led the NFL and his 34 touchdown passes broke his own franchise mark. Yet his once-solid relationship with Brown appeared to deteriorate during a late slide that culminated in a 9-6-1 finish, a swoon that caused the Steelers to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Brown sat out a crucial Week 17 game against Cincinnati and in the aftermath lashed out on social media, blaming Roethlisberger for having an “owner mentality .”

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert went out of his way to defend the quarterback, saying that in a way, Roethlisberger was dealing with “52 kids” on the roster , a challenge for some of Roethlisberger’s teammates to take on a greater role in the locker room. Not that Roethlisberger minds the responsibility. He has been unapologetic in his approach and unafraid to call out himself and others when the team fails to play to the standard it has set for itself during his largely successful tenure.

Roethlisberger flirted with retirement after the 2016 season but has found a renewed sense of energy in his mid-30s. Having an offensive line that has kept him upright has certainly helped. Roethlisberger has been sacked an average of 20½ times over the last four years — compared with an average of 42 times per season between 2006-13 — due in part to stellar play in front of him and an approach predicated on getting the ball out faster while shying away from the “Ben being Ben” stuff that led to a mix of big plays and big mistakes earlier in his career.

The announcement of the extension came on the 15th anniversary of the Steelers making Roethlisberger the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft. After taking over the starting job in Week 2 of the 2004 season following an injury to veteran Tommy Maddox, Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to three Super Bowls, along with seven AFC North titles and 10 total playoff berths.

“Ben is one of the most productive quarterbacks in NFL history, and he continued to climb the lists among the all-time passing leaders in the league last season,” team president Art Rooney II said. “But I know Ben’s focus is on only one goal — to bring another Lombardi trophy back to Pittsburgh.”

Roethlisberger will lead an offense in the midst of a generational shift at other skill positions. JuJu Smith-Schuster replaces Brown as Pittsburgh’s top receiver and the running back combination of James Conner and Jaylen Samuels combined to put up numbers in 2018 similar to Bell’s at his peak. There is stability, however, along the offensive line. Four of five starters return and there are plenty of potential in-house replacements for right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was traded to Arizona in March.

Pittsburgh has toyed with finding Roethlisberger’s eventual successor, drafting Josh Dobbs in the fourth round in 2017 and Mason Rudolph in the third round last year. Dobbs won the backup job last summer over Rudolph and veteran Landry Jones, who was cut on the eve of the 2018 season. Having them in place means the Steelers are likely to avoid drafting a quarterback with one of their 10 selections in the draft that starts Thursday.

Inside linebacker, cornerback and wide receiver figure to be Pittsburgh’s biggest needs early.

Quarterback, for the 15th straight year, will not. Not with Roethlisberger still very much in charge early into the next decade.

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