Big Ben optimistic for next year as season ends

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are left to unpack a season of lost opportunities, but at least they’ll do so with their franchise quarterback intact for the foreseeable future.

Ben Roethlisberger told reporters that he has one more year left on his contract and plans to honor it as long as center Maurkice Pouncey, his best friend on the team, is back as well.

“I’m 36 years old,” said Roethlisberger, whose 9-6-1 Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 on Sunday but were eliminated from playoff contention when the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Cleveland Browns. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be 37 by the season next year. I’m not getting any younger, but I still feel good. Like I said, we keep that line together, that’ll give us a good, fighting chance.”

In 2015, Roethlisberger signed a four-year, $87.4 million extension with the Steelers that took his contract through the 2019 season. Both sides could choose to renegotiate this offseason.

Roethlisberger’s 2018 campaign featured a league passing title with 5,129 yards, his first 5,000-yard campaign, along with a franchise-record 34 touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.

After a six-game winning streak midseason, the Steelers lost four of their last six games, all by seven points or fewer.

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Ben Roethlisberger says he has “pride” in his teammates, especially his linemen, despite missing the playoffs Sunday.

The Steelers won’t rebuild while Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown keep producing. The duo combined for a sixth consecutive 100-catch season along with 15 touchdowns.

“I think we’ve got a really good group,” Roethlisberger said. “I think the linemen, as long as they come back, they’re the core. They’re the strength of this team. If they come back, I’ll be back and I feel good. We’ve got guys that got better. We’ve got young guys that just keep getting better. Guys like JuJu [Smith-Schuster] and James Conner, guys that are just going to keep getting better. I don’t think our window’s closed.”

The Steelers have serious work to do to keep it open. Coach Mike Tomlin said he won’t address whether his team underachieved — “We had 17 weeks to state a case … We stand by our work,” he said — but players laid that out for him.

Linebacker Bud Dupree was candid about Pittsburgh’s problems.

“We have to be brothers on the field and off the field. That’s the main step we have to take,” Dupree said. “We’ve got to let each other know that we need each other, that we are working hard for one reason, that’s to win, and there’s nothing else to work hard for — it’s not individuals, it’s not accolades, it’s to win the Super Bowl. … We’ve got to stop losing, playing down to teams’ level, and start giving our top attention.”

The Steelers’ defense ranked first in the league in sacks and among the top 10 in total defense and rushing defense but struggled to finish games in November and December.

“I hope we grow from this,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “I hope this hurts a lot because it’s going to be a long offseason.”

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