The Pittsburgh Steeler’s season came to a shuddering halt last Sunday. Mike Tomlin’s team got housed by the head coach-less Cleveland Browns. It was a disastrous day for the team that started 11-0, after a start like that, you can’t get bounced out in the Wildcard round.
A slow start in the first quarter buried Pittsburgh; a valiant effort followed the rest of the game, sadly, it was too much. Immediately after the defeat, the post-mortem began, and it revolved around one man; Big Ben Roethlisberger. There are now significant questions surrounding the future of the former Miami quarterback.
The Championship Drought
Terry Bradshaw retired in 1983; the Steelers wouldn’t win a Super Bowl until Roethlisberger rocked up at the Steel City. No matter how great those defenses were in the 90s, mediocre quarterback play saw Pittsburgh fail to land the big one.
Roethlisberger arrived as one of the final pieces in the Pittsburgh puzzle. A Super Bowl win in Detroit in 2005-06 quickly followed, as did another when Pittsburgh beat Arizona. Pittsburgh then made a third trip to the big game in Arlington, that time they would lose out to the Packers. The arrival of Roethlisberger heralded a new Steeler dynasty.
Offense Drops The Baton
Or, so we thought. That last Super Bowl appearance was over a decade ago, in the subsequent years. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning dominated the AFC. Pittsburgh became the bridesmaid, the losing team that possessed all the talent. Members of the Steeler cognoscenti blamed those defeats on bad culture or a lousy defense.
2020 saw them flip the script on that narrative, the front office put together a ferocious defense, one of the very best in Steelers history. Add that to Roethlisberger’s return from injury; this would be the year that the Steelers would re-assert themselves in the AFC.
After a dream 11-0 start, Pittsburgh hit significant trouble. The defense experienced some critical injuries that shifted the onus onto the offense. The offense needed to keep the season afloat; unfortunately, it sank to the Allegheny River’s bottom. Roethlisberger struggled in the last six weeks of the season.
After the Thanksgiving week win over Baltimore, Big Ben posted one game with a passer rating above 100. Roethlisberger played erratically, misreading defenses as well as missing on passes. The offenses troubles put massive pressure on the defense. While that unit performed admirably, the Steeler offense never gave them a chance.
Roethlisberger’s end-of-season QBR was 60.1 that placed him 22nd out of all quarterbacks. That is not good enough when Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes are all in the same conference.
Is Roethlisberger Finished?
It is not an easy answer. The second half come back against the Colts demonstrated that Roethlisberger can still throw the ball deep. I don’t think the arm strength has dropped off a cliff, though it is diminishing; regardless of that, he threw for over 500 yards last week. Nevertheless, at 38, one must accept that there will be inconsistency with the arm.
We’ve witnessed it this year with Tom Brady and Drew Brees. At times those two looked incredible, other times not so much. That duo is infinitely better than Roethlisberger; maybe the NFL world should’ve seen Roethlisberger’s erratic play coming. At various points in the season, his adjusted throwing yards hovered around three, which is not good, especially when the team owns no running game.
A look at his next-gen passing chart for the season confirms that he’s still elite when he throws to the field’s left side, although that might be down to Chase Claypool. The rest of that chart displays some worrying trends. Roethlisberger can’t throw over the middle of the field; the great Johnny Unitas used to fire the ball over the middle with tremendous accuracy and power. Roethlisberger used to as well, until this year. Now he throws floaters, infield pop-ups if you will. That is the first sign of declining arm strength.
Middle of the field passes require throws out of a short dropback, and sometimes without a stable platform. That is where quarterbacks such as Josh Allen or Matt Stafford can rifle it in between traffic. Roethlisberger cannot do that consistently anymore. Look at where three of the four interceptions occurred last week.
Is It All Roethlisberger’s Fault.
Of course not; that would be incredibly unfair to say. The Steelers’ offensive line finished 28th in pass block success. That is not ideal when the quarterback is 38. The Steelers possessed no rushing attack; they finished last in rushing yardage per game. Compare that to New Orleans’ magnificent rushing attack which makes Drew Brees’ life so much easier.
Due to the lack of run game, Pittsburgh ranked second in percentage of pass plays attempted. Only the Jags were ahead of them, again if the quarterback is 38 years old, with a declining, erratic arm, that’s not a recipe for success. Randy Fichtner’s playcalling didn’t help either, however, to play devil’s advocate, the Steelers didn’t own enough tools to be successful on offense. Ironically, the team misses Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
A creaky offensive line, a terrible tight-end, and no running game are all disaster factors for a veteran quarterback. The team needed to play offense around all its flaws; in reality, there were far too many flaws to overcome on offense.
Is It Time to Go?
Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, and Tua Tagovailoa reside in the AFC. Trevor Lawrence should join them later this year. Roethlisberger is now the old man of the conference. Also, unlike those names above Roethlisberger will not get better; he will only get worse.
Roethlisberger is not worth trading for; his cap hit is $41 million. Pittsburgh has only three options; push Roethlisberger into retirement, which would wipe off $19 million from the cap, cut him, which would also save $19 million, or bring him back. Furthermore, the Steelers’ offensive line needs a retool, as does the running back room. These are essential questions Pittsburgh must answer this offseason.
In reality, there is only one crucial question: can the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger? The answer is an emphatic no, especially with the young superstars that the Steelers will need to beat. When a team owns a Super Bowl-caliber defense, the right quarterback must be under center. Please think of the Sacksonville Jaguars of 2017; a fantastic defense let down by Blake Bortles; one can say the same of the 2018 Bears, Or any Bears team.
Great defenses are less sustainable than great offenses; already Bud Dupree looks like he’s played his last snap in Pittsburgh. There is no room for sentiment in the NFL, nor is there room for sentiment in the Steel City. Championships are the only currency that matters in Pittsburgh. For that reason, the Steelers need to move on from Ben Roethlisberger.