Ben Roethlisberger to Return to Steelers in 2021: It is a Risk, but the Right Move for Pittsburgh

Ben Roethlisberger will be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. The suspense is over. Nearly two months after the Steelers 2020 season ended in Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic fashion in defeat the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh has answered its biggest off season question.

Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Canada

Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Details are sure to emerge in the coming days and weeks, but statements by Art Rooney II and Kevin Colbert left no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger was going to have sacrifice to return. Ben Roethlisberger met with Art Rooney II, and undoubtedly said he would.

After he met with Art Rooney II, his agent Ryan Tollner confirmed:

For fans looking at that 3 interceptions in less than a quarter against the Browns left wondering, “Why bringing him back?” another game against Cleveland offers clarity.

The Case for Bringing Back Ben

As I’ve confessed before, when I first learned that injuries might force Terry Bradshaw to retire, I was happy, because my older brother had told me “Bradshaw was ‘old.’” To an 11 year old, “Young” meant automatically better.

  • Ah, the ignorance of youth. Cliff Stoudt was younger, but he certainly wasn’t better.

I remember seeing a few games after the fateful declaration, but didn’t see too many after that. But I do remember tuning into one a few years later. The 1987 season opened with Mark Malone and Chuck Noll logging their second upset of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

  • Could the Steel Curtain be ready to rise again?

Channel 11 in Baltimore was showing the game in week 2, a Steeler road game against the Browns. The picture in the DC suburbs was fuzzy as it arrived from Baltimore, but I didn’t need HD quality to understand the disaster.

I tuned in in the fourth quarter. The Browns were winning, but only by 20-10. It was just in time to see Mark Malone toss an interception right to Clay Matthews, which Matthew returned for a touchdown. I think, I can’t be sure, but I think that was his 4th on the day. If I’m right, he quickly threw another with the Browns converted into another touchdown.

  • Chuck Noll had seen enough, and benched Malone.
Bubby Brister, Chuck Noll, Bubby Brister super tecmo bowl raiting, Steelers 1988

Chuck Noll and Bubby Brister. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images

Bubby Brister to the rescue? Right? Ah, no. The Bubster threw an interception of his own and went 1-5 in mop up duty. He also got sacked.

7590 days elapsed between Terry Bradshaw’s last pass to Calvin Sweeney and Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass to Plaxico Burress. No, not all of those days were as bleak as that afternoon at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, but the moral of the story is clear: If you have a franchise quarterback, you ride him as far as he will take you.

Yes, There is a Risk in Roethlisberger Returning

The risk of a Ben Roethlisberger return is real. One Mexican blogger spelled it out:

What we saw at the end of 2020 might be the best Ben can bring with the new arm that’s attached to his 39 year old body. Even if he can get comfortable with his arm’s “bionics” (to borrow Jim Wexell’s term) the Steelers will still need to:

  • Find a starting caliber running back
  • Rebuild the offensive line
  • Keep or replace key players on defense

But Ben Roethlisberger has obviously indicated he’s willing to give up enough salary to let the Steelers try to do that. Mason Rudolph has shown real upside. (And please, the Steelers can and will do what is needed to keep in in Pittsburgh in 2022.)

Mason Rudolph might represent the future, the here in the present Ben Roethlisberger still represents the Steelers best shot at going to the Super Bowl in 2021.

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A “Thank You” to the Late Patricia Rooney, 30 Years in the Making

When news broke in late January of Patricia Rooney’s passing, my first thought, I confess, was “Oh, no, what am I going to write about?”

Patricia Rooney is of course the wife of the late Steelers Chairman, Dan Rooney and the mother of Steelers President of Art Rooney II.

As the sister of Mary Reagn, who served as Art Rooney Sr.’s secretary for over 40 years, Patricia Rooney saw it all. From the chronic losing, to the Super Steelers of the 70’s, the muddling mediocrity of the 80s, the rise of Cowher Power in the 1990s, to the arrival of Ben Roethlisberger in the 00’s, the 2nd Super Bowl era, and the struggle and rebuild for a 3rd ring.

  • And yet, through it all, Patricia Rooney remained a very private person.
Patricia Rooney, Patricia Rooney Obituary, Patricia Rooney Steelers

Patricia Rooney. Photo Credit: Niagara Falls Review

Read enough books about the Steelers, and you’ll get to know plenty of people who’ve played critical, yet almost invisible roles in shaping the destiny of the franchise. Think of people like Fran Fogarty, Joe Gordon, Ed Kiley, Buff Boston, Bill Nunn Jr. and Dan Ferens.

  • Yet, outside of Dan Rooney’s self-titled auto-biography, you find very little about Patricia Rooney.

In Gary Pomerantz’s seminal volume Their Life’s Work, Patricia Rooney’s name is only listed on 4 pages in the Index. Ed Kiley gets 3, while Agnus Greene, wife of Joe Greene, gets 12. Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, who has worked the Steelers beat since 1995, relates that his first interaction with Patricia Rooney probably came at Dan Rooney’s wake in 2017.

  • Yes, Patricia Rooney was a private person.

While raising 9 children with her husband Dan, she also found time to teach English at Robert Morris University, was active in the America for Ireland Fund, and helped found the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature.

  • It is fitting then, that a literary metaphor conveys her role with the Steelers.

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has captured the imagination of both boys and girls and men and women of successive generations. My wife is hardly a fantasy buff, but our first date was to see the Fellowship of the Ring, and as I described to our nephew/Godson, when giving him his first copy of the series, “”The experience was appropriately magical.”

Yet, as critics have noted, “In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, women are infrequently seen and even more seldom heard.” That’s true. But the critic who penned that could have also continued “…but their influence is felt throughout the narrative.”

  • And so it was with Patricia Rooney and the Steelers.

One only need glance at the outpouring of support for her on social media. The “usual suspects” such as Ryan Clark, T.J. Watt, Brett Keisel, Bill Cowher and Ike Taylor offered condolences via Twitter.

But so did the likes of Terence Garvin, who barely got 15 seconds of fame with the Steelers. But Chad Browns’s tweet brought it home better than anyone else’s, as he shared:

Brown’s story suggests that those type of silent, yet palpable gestures were a signature of Patricia Rooney. In fact, I’m sure they are, because his story prompted me to remember one of my own.

It was an early fall evening. The year was either 1990. The scene was the campus of Loyola Maryland, on the service road between Wynnewood Towers and the Garden (aka the Garbage) Café.

Bubby Brister

Bubby Brister cerca 1988. Photo Credit: Brian Smale, SI Vault.com

There someone walked toward the main campus with a white T-Shirt with the word “Steelers” stenciled on the front. On the eve of the 1989 Steelers storybook season, I’d seen Bubby Brister wearing this shirt in a full-page photo in Sports Illustrated’s story,”Soaring into the 90’s.”

  • And I HAD to have that shirt.

Except I couldn’t find it. By 1990, the Steelers status as a “national” team had faded, and outside Pittsburgh quality apparel was sparse. Ordering on-line was still a half a decade away. So I asked him:

“Where did you get that shirt?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me.”
“Who…?”
“Mrs. Rooney gave it to me. I don’t think they sell them to public.”

The guy’s name was Justin, and if I’m not mistaken, Justin was from a prominent Pittsburgh family. And those shirts were hard to find. I didn’t get mine until I made a pilgrimage to Station Square while in Pittsburgh on a Christmas visit years later.

It would be poetic to describe how a deep friendship between Justin and myself blossomed from this brief interaction. But poetry and accuracy don’t align here. Justin and I shared the same major, chatted about the Steelers occasionally, gossiped about classmates but “friendly” best describes our relationship.

But Justin was friends with another Loyola Steelers fan named Mike. And after leaving Loyola, Mike and I did become close friends. And at some point, Mike and I realized that Justin was a mutual acquaintance. Justin had a very distinctive way of speaking, and always seemed to be at least half an era behind when it came to remembering the names of Steelers players.

That quirk of his provided levity that offset difficult moments during games in the 1990’s, as one of us would imitate Justin’s voice saying, “John Stallworth was wide open, how could Joe Gililam miss him?” when really it had been Yancey Thigpen and Kordell Stewart. (And lest you think that Justin’s memory lapses were rooted in racial insensitivity, Mike Tomczak certainly would have become “Cliff Stoudt” and I imagine that to this day Justin still refers to Tommy Maddox as “that USFL quarterback.”)

30 Years Later: Thank You Mrs. Rooney

My friendship with Mike went far beyond and dove much deeper than quipping about our mutual friend Justin. But those quips did bring us occasional amusement.

Amusement that we very well might never have enjoyed, had Patricia Rooney not given Justin a T-Shirt.

Thank you Mrs. Rooney.

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Can We Count on Chase Claypool? Here’s What Steelers Rookie Wide Receiver Playoff Statistics Suggests

The Pittsburgh Steelers are banking big time on rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool in the playoffs. Mike Tomlin makes no bones about it. After the Steelers narrow loss to Cleveland, Tomlin declared:

It was our intention to feature him a little bit today. We wanted him to have that type of rhythm and that type of confidence in his playmaking ability going into January ball. We were able to check that box.

The Steelers plan appears to be working. After breaking records in September, and October, Chase Claypool’s numbers began to drop in November. During the Steelers 3 game December losing streak, the rookie who’d scored 4 touchdowns in 1 game against the Eagles had all but disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Before the Browns game, Randy Fictchner talked openly about hitting the “Rookie Wall” explaining:

It always seems to happen about that time when your normal college season would be over. About 11, 12 games, that’s what you’re used to. That is what their bodies are used to. I won’t say that he hit that wall, but I will say there’s something there that you have to work yourself through. I saw it, you can see it.

Mike Tomlin declined to admit that Claypool had hit the rookie wall, but conceded that coaches had been trying to help him avoid hitting that wall by limiting his snaps. Claypool’s explosive performances against the Colts and Browns show that the Steelers plans paid big dividends in the at the tail end of the 2020 regular season.?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Eagles

Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew

  • Now the challenge for Claypool and the Steelers make sure his late season surge carries over into the playoffs.

Playoff history of past Steelers rookie wide receivers suggests this will be difficult….

History of Steelers Rookie Wide Receivers in the Playoffs

The playoffs are different breed of NFL game. If memory serves, Hines Ward once likened the difference in intensity between the playoffs and regular season to the difference between the regular season and preseason.

  • That makes production in the playoffs particularly difficult for rookies.

To wit, at least 4 Steelers wide receivers have won Super Bowl rings as rookies – but you wouldn’t know it from their playoff statistics.

Numbers don’t lie. The prospects for Pittsburgh’s plans for Claypool don’t look bright.

Here you’ve got playoff statistics from 20 Steelers rookie wide receivers drawn from 41 games over a 43 years period. Passes were thrown from Hall of Famers like Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger to “How was he a first rounder?” Mark Malone, to middle of the roaders like Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart and yes, Bubby Brister.

Steelers rookie wide receivers playoff statistics

Based on those averages, if the Steelers were to play in two playoff games, Chase Claypool can be expected to catch between 3-4 passes for just under 50 total yards with his longest reception clocking in at 13 yards and his chances scoring a touchdown are minimal.

Ah. While numbers may not lie – Derek Hill and Charles Johnson’s rookie playoff campaigns foreshadowed future disappointment – statistics often fall short of telling the complete truth.

Times When Statistics Fail to Tell the Full Story

While Lynn Swann’s playoff rookie playoff contributions were pretty good, you’d never guess that John Stallworth was ALSO a future Hall of Famer if his rookie playoff stats were all you had to go by. On the flip side, Mark Stock logged 4 catches for 74 yards for the 1989 Steelers. Even if you can forgive his critical drop in the playoff loss to the Broncos, the rookie’s future looked bright.

  • Not only did Stock never play another down for the Steelers, he didn’t catch another NFL pass until 1993 when he was with the then Washington Redskins.
Antonio Brown, Steelers vs Ravens

Antonio Brown catches with his helmet. Photo Credit: Behind the Steel Curtain

Sammie Coates is another player who enjoyed a false flash in the playoffs. He looked good in the Steelers playoff loss to the Broncos in 2015 but a year later he was dropping would-be game changers in the AFC Championship loss to the Patriots.

  • And sometimes quantity of catches tells us nothing about the quality of the catches.

Nate Washington converted a critical 3rd down on the Steelers first scoring drive against the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship – and then kept Domonique Foxworth from intercepting a few plays latter. Likewise, Antonio Brown’s 5 catches for 90 yards look pretty good for a rookie in 2010.

However, “pretty good” fails to communicate the reality that Brown made the most critical catches in the Steelers divisional win over the Ravens and then again in the AFC Championship win over the Jets.

Lipps and Randel El Pen Positive Precedent for Claypool

There are of course two Steelers rookies who followed strong regular seasons who continued their success in the playoffs. Louis Lipps had 45 catches for 860 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie for the 1984 Steelers and then went on to make 8 catches for 131 yards in the ’84 Steelers two playoff games.

As a rookie Antwaan Randle El had 47 catches for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, and in the playoffs he had 9 catches for 138 yards – in addition to his 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown the 2002 Steelers Wild Card win over the Browns.

The best part? Both Randle El and Louis Lipps, like Chase Claypool were Joe Greene Great Performance Award  aka Steelers Rookie of the Year winners. Here’s hoping Claypool follows the post season footsteps of Lipps and Randle El.

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Sloppy Steelers Beat Broncos 26-21, Overcoming Self-Inflicted Wounds

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Denver Broncos 26-21 to win their home opener with a sloppy effort in a contest where both teams appeared to determined to give the game away to the other. The win improves the Steelers to 2-0 and gives them a share of the AFC North lead.

  • That is satisfying, but it by no means is it cause for complacency.

Certainly, there are positives Pittsburgh can pick out of its win against the Broncos but, by the same token, there are some troubling trends emerging which the Steelers must address. We’ll look at both, but first lets provide a little Steelers-Broncos context.

Diontae Johnson, Michael Ojemudia, Steelers vs Broncos

Diontae Johnson scores a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Game Lives Up to Uncanny Nature of Steelers-Broncos History

Let’s start today’s recap with a Steeler history trivia question: What do Mike Tomlin, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll all have in common?

  • All three coaches had/have losing records against the Denver Broncos.
Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, Steelers Six Lombardi Trophies, Mike Tomlin Bill Cowher photo

Bill Cowher interviews Mike Tomlin. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Including playoffs, Noll went 7-11-1, Cowher went 2-4 and Tomlin entered the game with a 2-5 record. So it should surprise no one that then that uncanny things happen when the Steelers play to Broncos.

In 1988, Rodney Carter (who?) had an all-world performance to spark the Steelers and snap a 6 game losing streak. Cramps forced ever durable Dermontti Dawson out of the game leading to a failed Chuck Lanz-Bubby Brister exchanged which doomed the 1989 Steelers Cinderella show.

In 1993 Bill Cowher’s Steelers looked poised to dominate like no one had since ’85 Bears after their Monday Night Football throttling of the Bills, only to get manhandled by the Broncos a week later.

In his rookie year Mike Tomlin would lose Ryan Clark on Monday Night Football for the year due to a freak injury. And who can forget the Tim Tebow game and 2018’s turnover fest?

2020’s edition of the Steelers vs. the Broncos lived up to tradition. The game saw:

  • Ray-Ray McCloud opened the 2nd half with a brilliant 49 yard kick return, only to see…
  • Ben Roethlisberger, with tons of time, throwing one of the most bone-headed interceptions imaginable
  • The Steelers answered a Broncos touchdown with a touchdown of their own…
  • …Four plays later they answered with a safety, putting them up by 12 with 10 minutes left to play
  • Pittsburgh then promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos, letting them back into the game

And that’s only in the second half, that doesn’t count the Joe Haden setting the Steelers up at Denver’s 11 just inside the two minute warning with the Steelers holding a 14-3 lead. A touchdown there could have effectively ended it at the half. Instead the Steelers settled for 3.

Yes, this game was true to form for the Steelers-Broncos series, but what does it tell us about Pittsburgh’s prospects for the rest of 2020?

Positives for Pittsburgh Coming Out of the Broncos Game

There were w a number of positives for Pittsburgh coming out of the Broncos game.

First, Ben Roethlisberger looked good. Yes, his interception was as boneheaded and as unforced as they come, but Ben does have the tendency to try to do too much.

But Ben Roethlisberger hit 9 different receivers in this game, and has quickly reestablished his rhythm with JuJu Smith-Schuster, while Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson are gaining their quarterback’s trust. Chase Claypool’s first catch last week was spectacular, and his 84 yard catch and run showed the wideout from Notre Dame is the real deal.

  • James Conner also bounced back from an injury and subpar performance against the Giants.
T.J. Watt, Jeff Driskel, Steelers vs Broncos

T.J. Watt sacks Jeff Driskel. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Sure, if you take out his late 59 yard run Conner’s rushing average drops to 3.1 yards per carry, but he ran strong all day, and his big run was a game-sealer – just what you want from your starting running back.

The Steelers offensive line, playing with two new starters, also protected their quarterback well, as Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked once and hit 3 times.

The Steelers defense continues to show that it can harass the quarterback at will, with T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds combining for seven sacks.

Just as they did against the Giants, against the Broncos both the Steelers offense and defense proved they could make big plays at key moments.

That’s how the half-full glass looked against the Broncos. Now for the other half.

Self-Inflicted Wounds and a Few Troubling Trends for Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh produced a lot of ugly plays against the Broncos. The “good” news there is that many of those wounds were self-inflicted. Six of the Denver Broncos 17 first downs were from penalties. Several of those came on third down.

  • Some of those pass interference penalties were questionable, but there’s no question that they came at the worst time for the Steelers.

Benny Snell has now fumbled twice in two weeks. Last week a heads up play by JuJu Smith-Schuster rendered that fumble nothing more than a footnote, but ball security has been Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel since 2018 and it came close to taking them down again today.

And if the offensive line did do a reasonable job of pass blocking today, too often James Conner simply had no room to run. The Broncos defense registered 6 tackles for losses – a tendency which cannot continue because these plays inevitably set up long first downs.

  • That brings us back to Ben Roethlisberger.

Ben Roethlisberger has played better than anyone would have a right to expect a 38 year old quarterback coming off of elbow surgery to play.

  • But the deep passing game has disappeared from the Steelers offense.

Some of this is certainly by design, but there were other times when Ben Roetlisberger had plenty of time to throw, yet could not find or did not attempt to throw to an open receiver down field. The bottom line is that the Steelers finished the game 2-12 on third downs, which simply won’t do.

Pittsburgh Needs to Bring Its “A” Game Now that Preseason Is Over

The  Grumpy Old Man preseason apologist in me has no qualms about chalking up some of the Steelers sloppiness of the last two weeks to a lack of preseason football. The Steelers were fortunate that the schedule making gods of the NFL gave them season openers against two rebuilding teams.

  • The same cannot be said for the Houston Texans.

The Texans finished 10-6 last year and the fact that they’ve started 2020 0-2 only serves to underline how big of a chip they’ll be carrying into Pittsburgh. In his post-game press conference Mike Tomlin conceded “We’ve got a lot of growth ahead of us,” but then couched his self-criticism with “But it’s good to grow while you win.”

True. Its also true that the Steelers need to do speed up the former if they want continue to enjoy the latter in the weeks to come.

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Should Mason Rudolph Start for Steelers Against the Jets?

Just two days after his young, rookie quarterback threw four interceptions in the Steelers 17-10 loss to the Bills at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football, head coach Mike Tomlin announced that Devlin Hodges would retain his starting role against the Jets in Week 16.

  • Not much of a surprise.

While Devlin Hodges didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to match the “Duckmania” that was born during the 2009 National Duck Calling Champion’s previous three starts and 16 quarters of action in total, fact is, he “didn’t kill us” as Tomlin famously summed up Hodges’ relief efforts, when he rescued a struggling Mason Rudolph in the second half of a game against the Bengals on November 24 and did just enough to guide Pittsburgh to a come-from-behind victory.

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

Mason Rudolph launches a 45 yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Even though his four-interception performance did help kill the Steelers chances against Buffalo, I believe Devlin Hodges retaining his starting role is the logical direction to take for a Steelers team that’s 8-6 and still has the inside track on the sixth seed in the race to qualify for the AFC playoffs.

However, if you were to go by the reactions of a lot of fans and even media members following Sunday’s rather frustrating loss to a Bills squad that appeared to be ripe for the picking, you would have thought the next logical step would be to go with Rudolph in the penultimate game of the 2019 regular season.

Based on what?

In Rudolph, we’re talking about a quarterback that really hadn’t shown a whole heck of a lot of special talent or even an “it” factor during his first nine games as the replacement for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field.

  • This isn’t to say Manson Rudolph was terrible.
  • This isn’t to say he didn’t have his moments.

But he was a guy whose foot-work, accuracy, pocket presence and, eventually, confidence were all called into question. Sure, these things can be corrected. Heck, for all we know, he may have already taken huge steps in fixing these problems during his three weeks as Hodges’ backup — after all, Mason Rudolph may not be a rookie, but in terms of NFL experience, the second-year man from Oklahoma State is essentially at that level.

  • But we don’t know if Mason Rudolph has improved his game while not playing. How could we?

The only thing we know about Mason Rudolph is that he went from looking just okay during his first seven games of action, to looking completely lost during his final six quarters — including that abysmal performance against the Browns on Thursday Night Football, in-which he threw four interceptions and became the center of a national NFL scandal, thanks to an ugly brawl with defensive end Myles Garrett in the game’s final seconds.

  • Fact is, the offensive production hasn’t been much better under Devlin Hodges than it was with Mason Rudolph.

The Steelers have scored just one offensive touchdown in six of the last seven games–including Hodges’ last two games as a starter.

Although, in fairness to Devlin Hodges, he does look more capable of moving the offense and making plays downfield. Yes, that hurt him the other night, as the game-plan seemed to call for more passing than running against a Buffalo team that was elite while defending the former and just okay while defending the latter.

But Rudolph may have made those same mistakes against Buffalo. When you’re dealing with quarterbacks this young and green, a conservative approach seems to be the best one–why the Steelers didn’t stick with that approach is an article for another time.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to find much to love about Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges in terms of talent and performance. Let’s face it, if Hodges didn’t have a cool nickname and backstory, and if he didn’t remind old-time Steelers fans of Bubby Brister, he may never have endeared himself to the faithful in the first place.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin was asked if Hodges will have a short leash if he continues to struggle against the Jets this Sunday. To paraphrase the veteran head coach, he said he does not anticipate failure, and that he will cross that bridge if and when he comes to it.

  • Obviously, Devlin Hodges does have a short leash, especially with the playoffs on the line.

But if Tomlin does go to Mason Rudolph during the game, it won’t be because his talent dictates that he’s the better option. He’d just be the quarterback currently not “killing” the Steelers offense.

 

 

 

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Key Take Away Exiting Bye Week? Steelers Remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s Recovery

Kinda of like “Midway” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Steelers 2019 bye week didn’t arrive in the middle of the season, but it still provides convenient point to assess what we’ve learned about the team so far.

Heading into the season, the Steelers needed to affirmatively answer two key questions:

  • Could a post-Killer Bees Steelers offense survive or even thrive?
  • Would the Steelers defense build on the latent growth evident at the tail end of the 2018 season?

The easy responses are “No” and “Yes,” but after six games, honest answers evade both questions.

At first glance, the Steelers offense resembles a struggling, shell of its former self. Numbers don’t lie. The Steelers offense ranks near the bottom by any number of measures. Opposing defensive coordinators don’t lose sleep before playing Pittsburgh. They might fret over pressuring the quarterback, but this offense scares no one.

Sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster is frustrating fantasy owners, and James Conner isn’t running with the authority that he ran with last season. But starting 3 quarterbacks in 6 games yields a limited and unrepresentative sample. The reality remains that its far too early to write off the Steelers offense.

  • By the same token, its still too early to say dominating defense as returned to Pittsburgh.

New arrivals such as Steven Nelson, Devin Bush Jr. and Minkah Fitzpatrick have improved the unit. Keith Butler’s defense has been both harassing quarterback AND taking the ball away, and they’ve been executing those splash plays at critical moments in games (See Bud Dupree’s strip-sack vs the Bengals.)

  • All positive signs for Pittsburgh.

But can the Steelers defense sustain this? Arguably, the unit has lost its best player, Stephon Tuitt for the year. Stephon Tuitt was dominating opposing offenses and which paved the way for the Steelers to “Get there with four” when rushing the quarterback.

  • The improvement of the Steelers defense is real and appears to be sustainable, even without Tuitt.

But the same could have been said back in 2017, when the Keith Butler’s boys flirted with dominance in games against the Chiefs, Bengals and Lions only to end the season as unit that needed several Chris Boswell last minute saves in the regular season, and came up flat footed against the Jaguars in the playoffs.

To put it in Yoda speak, “Look good the Steelers defense does. But six games does not a dominating unit make.”

Key Bye Week Take Away Revolves Around Roethlisberger

So if we can’t say much with a lot of confidence about the Steelers offense and defense thus far in 2019, what is it that we can say?

  • It’s that the Steelers remain “All In” on Ben Roethlisberger’s recovery.

Mike Tomlin, Ben Roethlisberger, St. Vincents, St. Vincent's, Steelers training camp, Latrobe

Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger at St. Vincents in summer of 2019. Photo Credit: The Morning Call

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention for the last 3-4 years. While he wasn’t involved in management of the team, Art Rooney II certainly remembers what it was like to have Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, David Woodley and Bubby Brister starting at quarterback.

  • Art Rooney II has tasted life without a franchise quarterback, and he knows franchise quarterbacks are very hard to find.

That fueled decisions as far ranging as forcing Todd Haley out, to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract at age 37 to paying a premium to move up to draft Devin Bush Jr. in the 2019 NFL Draft. What has changed however, is Roethlisberger’s health.

  • Ben Roethlisberger’s 2019 campaign stopped after 6 quarters, and elbow surgery ended it for good.

The Steelers knew their 37 year old quarterback needed elbow surgery, yet still traded their 2020 first round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Trading a 1st round draft pick cuts against the franchises DNA. But the fact is that Minkah Fitzpatrick can do a lot more to help the Steelers win a Super Bowl in 2020 than someone they might draft.

Its a plan that could payoff masterfully….

…But only if Ben Roethlisberger returns in franchise form.

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Ravens Defeat Steelers 26-23 in OT. Ball Security Remains Pittsburgh’s Achilles Heel

The Baltimore Ravens came to Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers in overtime to the tune of 26 to 23. After last week’s victory against the Bengals, going into the game the talk was if the Steelers could win and the Browns were to lose, Pittsburgh would find itself in a 3 way tie in the AFC North.

  • Instead, the game reaffirmed the putrid direction which Pittsburgh’s season has taken.

To win, the Steelers would need to abandon the gimmicks which carried them to victory over the Bengals. They did that. The Steelers defense would need to be excellent. The Steelers defense delivered. The team, as a whole, would need to improvise in the face of the unexpected. They did that too.

But, as it has so many times over the last two seasons, the game turned on what’s become the Steelers Achilles Heel: Ball Security.

JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Steelers vs Ravens, Marion Humphery

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s overtime fumble dooms Steelers. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review,

Rudolph Takes the Training Wheels Off – To Mixed Effect

Let’s take Mike Tomlin at his word that the Steelers did not plan a steady diet of Jet screens and the Wildcat. Nonetheless, the Steelers tried both in the game’s first two series, and paid mightily for it as their first Jet screen ended with a 4 yard loss, and Jaylen Samuels threw an ugly interception that was headed in Ryan Switzer’s direction.

  • The Ravens quickly scored a touchdown padding their lead to 10-0 with hardly 10 minutes elapsed in the game.

Randy Fichtner decided to go conventional, and did something he hasn’t done much of, allow Mason Rudolph to air it out. Mason Rudolph delivered, hitting James Washington for a 21 yard gain, and then James Conner for 8 yards, before finding JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 35 yard touchdown pass.

  • That was a good drive for Rudolph and the Steelers offense.

However, Mason Rudolph misfired on several other drives as he tried to connect with Diontae Johnson and Johnny Holton on a number of deep routes that were wildly inaccurate.

But the Steelers defense was doing its part, as Kameron Kelly and Mike Hilton pulled down interceptions while Vince Williams, T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward sacked Lamar Jackson to set up a punt and his 2nd interception.

You never want to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns after turnovers, which is what the Steelers had to do, but those efforts led to a half time score of 17-13, proving that Pittsburgh was very much in the game.

Steelers Defense, Offense Improvise to Stay Alive

Lamar Jackson’s scrambling is one reason why the Baltimore Ravens were able to put 17 points on the board so quickly. Jackson scrambled early and often and the Steelers appeared to be powerless to stop them.

I’ll leave it to the film reviewers to diagnose why, but right now I’ll credit Keith Butler‘s defense with making the adjustments necessary to neutralize Jackson’s run threat.

  • In the face of adversity, the Steelers improvised.

The gods of fate shined on the Steelers early in the second half when Devin Bush came down with an interception that really should have been overturned on replay. But what the gods of fate giveith, they taketh away.

On the Steelers third offensive play of the 2nd half, Mason Rudolph did his best Ben Roethlisberger impression by evading not one but two sacks to find James Washington for a 26 yard gain.

  • Rudolph, however got sandwiched between Matthew Judon and Earl Thomas and went down like a ragdoll.
  • Rudolph lay on the turf at Heinz Field, motionless and unconscious.

With Mason Rudolph down for the count, on came Devlin Hodges, a man who spent the NFL’s opening day browsing the want ads. Its been a long time since someone wearing number 6 has slung the ball for the Steelers, but let’s daresay that Devlin Hodges looked better than Bubby Brister did in his debut.

Hodges moved the team to the 1 on the strength of a 14 yard pass to Vance McDonald. One play later James Conner was barreling into the End Zone for Pittsburgh’s first lead of the day.

Delvin Hodges wasn’t perfect. His biggest play was probably his 21 yard scramble. He threw an ugly pass that was intercepted that got nullified by a penalty. But he put the Steelers in a position to win.

Ball Security Remains Steelers Achilles Heel

Fault the Steelers defense for allowing Baltimore to tie the game at the end of regulation, (although Javon Hargrave’s sack was crucial in forcing the Ravens to settle for 3.) But credit those same men for holding the Ravens to -4 yards on the first drive in over time, thanks to a Bud Dupree sack and stout play by Stephon Tuitt and Kameron Kelly.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough.

On the Steelers second play of overtime, Devlin Hodges hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 10 yard gain, only to have Marlon Humphrey pop the ball lose.

As it did two weeks ago in San Francisco, as it did last year against New Orleans, Denver and Cleveland, Ball Security again doomed the Steelers.

  • When asked if he was ready to take a moral victory away from this game, Mike Tomlin abruptly declined declaring, “No I don’t.

Nor should he. Your defense can take away the ball and wreak havoc all it wants in the opponent’s backfield. Your offense can improvise and find ways to make things happen either through the air or through the ground.

  • But it matters not if you fail to protect the ball with game on the line.

The Steelers can’t, and that’s why they are 1-4.

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Mason Rudolph vs Joshua Dobbs and vs a Bit of Steelers History…

The early word out of Latrobe is that 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph looks good. Rudolph spent the 2019 off season working with Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics and footwork.

Per Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell, Mason Rudolph is throwing the ball with greater velocity, carrying himself with greater confidence, and showing more poise in the pocket. That’s good news for Mason Rudolph who enters his second summer at St. Vincents fighting Joshua Dobbs for the right to be Ben Roethlisberger’s backup.

Mason Rudolph, Joshua Dobbs, Steelers developing quarterbacks

Mason Rudoph and Joshua Dobbs square off @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

It is also interesting because Mason Rudolph is just fighting Joshua Dobbs, he’s also fighting a bit of Steelers history:

  • Pittsburgh just doesn’t have a good record of “developing quarterbacks.”

No, we’re not talking about the likes of Johnny Unitas, Earl Morrall, Len Dawson, and Bill Nelsen whom the Steelers pushed away only to see them return to punish Pittsburgh. Those were personnel mistakes. But the Steelers simply lack a strong record for grooming quarterbacks from the bullpen.

Before the salary cap, NFL coaches nurtured quarterbacks like fine wine. Often times they’d draft quarterbacks with an eye towards developing them for a few years rather than start them as rookies.

Super Bowl winners Roger Staubach, Joe Theismann, Jeff Hostetler, and Mark Rypien all did lengthy apprenticeships on the bench before earning status as full time starters.

  • Together, Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger have more Super Bowl rings than the aforementioned quartet combined, but both men started as rookies.

Ben Roethlisberger got a baptism by fire as a rookie, and led the Steelers to Super Bowl XL a year later. Bradshaw’s ascension to Super Bowl caliber quarterback started with the first game of his rookie year. The process resembled a traumatic midwifing rather than methodical maturation.

  • When the Steelers have tried to go the draft and develop route, things haven’t panned out as planned.

The Steelers picked Mark Malone with the 1st pick in the 1980 draft, and Malone had 3 years to learn at the feet of Terry Bradshaw and Cliff Stoudt. Mark Malone led the 1984 Steelers to the AFC Championship in his first year as a starter, but it was all downhill after that.

During the 1987 season, when Mark Malone was in route to posting a 46.4 passer rating (no, that’s not a typo that’s forty six point four), Chuck Noll defended his decision to keep Bubby Brister on the bench explaining, “He needs to develop.”

Bubby Brister posted a 65.3 passer rating when he became the starter in 1988 and a year later he helped the 1989 Steelers “Shock the World!” by winning a playoff game after losing their first two games by a score of 92-10.

  • But alas, Bubby Brister never matured into anything other than a serviceable starter.

(And this is from someone who told a taunt that the Cowboys were going to “Win the Aikman Derby” on a Boy Scout camping trip in late 1988, “We don’t need Troy Aikman. We have Bubby Brister.”)

Neil O’Donnell spent his rookie year behind Bubby Brister and Rick Strom. As Bob Labriola observed in his early 1991 off season roster analysis in the Steelers Digest, “If all goes well a year from now O’Donnell will have done nothing more than watched and learned while holding a clipboard.”

Of course an injury to Brister in a week 7 game against the Giants trust O’Donnell into the starting lineup where he stayed, save for two games at the end of the ’91 season, until Super Bowl XXX.

By that time Kordell Stewart had gotten himself into the mix as “Slash” and remained there until late 1996 when Bill Cowher formally elevated him to backup status. That didn’t last long as Stewart was the full time starter by opening day 1997.

In between O’Donnell and Stewart, there was Jim Miller, another quarterback the Steelers had drafted to develop. Jim Miller got 1994 and 1995 to mature, but his stint as a starter lasted all of one game.

Word to the Wise on Mason Rudolph – Pray for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Does this history somehow spell doom for Mason Rudolph? No, not at all. As Mike Tomlin would remind us, “Mason Rudolph is writing his own story.” But history offers an important lesson nontheless.

Just as it was for O’Donnell in 1991, the plan in 2004 was for Ben Roethlisberger to watch and learn behind Tommy Maddox. At 12:11 in the 3rd quarter of a week two contest against the Baltimore Ravens, Gary Baxter changed everything by knocking Maddox out of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger took the field, and the Steelers haven’t looked back since.

God willing, several years lie between Mason Rudoph and his first meaningful NFL snap. But its good to know he is making strides towards being ready just in case.

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Ben Roethlisberger Signs 4th Contract with Steelers – Let’s Enjoy Big Ben’s 11th Hour While We Can

On the eve of the 2019 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh Steelers have signed Ben Roethlisberger to a 2 year extension which binds him to the team through the 2021 season. While extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract has been one of the Steelers 2019 off season goals, it is unusual for the team to conclude such a deal so close to the NFL draft.

Terms of the deal have not yet been published, but any contract will likely keep Ben Roethlisberger among the highest paid NFL signal callers as well as giving the Steelers short-term salary cap relief.

  • The timing of the two events could merely be a coincidence, or the Steelers could be setting themselves up for a draft-day move.

It is impossible to say at this point and to some degree it is irrelevant. Ben Roethlisberger is 37 and his new contract will carry him through his 39th birthday, virtually ensuring that he will play is entire career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger contract, James Conner, Steelers vs Panthers

Ben Roethlisberger passes to James Conner. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

 

Let’s Just Enjoy This Steelers Nation

Today’s signing marks Ben Roethlisberger’s 4th contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers following his rookie deal, his 2008 contract and his 2015 extension. While it is tempting to label this as “Ben Roethlisberger’s Last Contract” one never knows in today’s NFL.

But even if it is not, Ben Roethlisberger’s last contract, Steelers fans need to treat as if it is.

  • What does that mean? Enjoy the ride while it lasts, Steelers Nation.

The 2019 off season has not been kind to Ben Roethlisberger. He’s endured a wave of criticism not seen since 2010 when the word “Midgeville” entered the vernacular in Steelers Nation.

Aided and abetted by a national media interested in sensationalism rather than serious journalism, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have painted Ben Roethlisberger is the villain in their conflicts with the team. Josh Harris and Rashard Mendenhall have joined the pile on, accuing Ben Roethlisberger of everything from intentionally fumbling to being a racist.

  • Fortunately, few in Pittsburgh or Steelers Nation pay this narrative much mind.

But that doesn’t change the fact that a large chunk of Steelers fans seem to take it for granted that Pittsburgh has the luxury of employing the services of a franchise quarterback.

  • Have the Pittsburgh Steelers taken steps back since knocking on heaven’s door in the 2016 AFC Championship?

Yes, they have. But rebuilding when you have a franchise quarterback in place is not easy, and it makes it all the more harder when you lose your best defender just as he’s reaching the prime of his career. While Ben Roethlisberger could be one of those players who “gets old fast,” as Hines Ward did, he’s shown few signs of losing a step in the race with Father Time.

  • That in and of itself, gives the Steelers chance.

When I was 10 years old, my brother told me that Terry Bradshaw wasn’t as good as he used to be, because he was “Getting old.” When I’d heard he wasn’t playing the next season because of an injury, I actually thought that was a good thing, because that meant Cliff Stoudt, someone younger, would naturally be better…

…I was in the 4th grade when that happened. By the time the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger, I’d graduated college, graduate school, done a year of volunteer service, and had lived abroad for 3 years in Argentina.

I’m old enough to remember watching Mark Malone and Bubby Brister play, old enough to remember thinking that the likes of Neil O’Donnell and Kordell Stewart were significant upgrades over the former duo.

  • They were. But you could meld all four quarterbacks together and still not get a player equal to Ben Roethlisberger.

At age 37 and now playing in his 4th contract, Big Ben has indeed reached his 11th hour. Let’s agree to enjoy that final hour.

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Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs: Time for Pittsburgh to Stand Pat?

Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL. In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers have their franchise quarterback. Yet, they looked to quarterback when the picked Joshua Dobbs in the 2017 NFL Draft and Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Could or should the Steelers look to draft another quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft? Let’s take a look….

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Image via The SteelersWire

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger will be 37 on opening day 2019 and has been the Steelers signal caller since the 2nd game of the 2004 season. While it took him a long time to get the respect he deserves, Ben Roethlisberger is finally seen as one of the NFL’s best.

  • However, Father Time is undefeated in his races with even gifted athletes.

The question of a player losing a step to the Old Man is one of “when” and not “if.” Is Ben Roethlisberger losing a step? The record is mixed. Ben Roethlisberger had an awful start to the 2017 and while the lull wasn’t as pronounced in 2018, he still started slow.

  • It is also tempting to look at his 16 interceptions and claim that as evidence the Big Ben is nearing his 11th hour.

But such claims are exaggerated. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger’s slow starts are a concern, but his 2018 interception percentage was actually lower than the year before and below his career average. He also threw 458 passes, far more than he’d ever thrown before.

He took a few more sacks but he’s not absorbing anywhere near the punishment he was absorbing earlier in his career. More importantly, he seems to be playing with much more harmony under Randy Fichtner than he did under Todd Haley.

  • The Steelers Red Zone percentage in 2018 soared to 73% well above the middling 53% mark they attained in 2017.

Could Ben Roethlisberger be one of those players who “gets old fast” the way say, Hines Ward did? It is a possibility, but also one that is impossible to anticipate, and the Steelers shouldn’t “Live in their fears” as far as that is concerned in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart Entering the 2019 NFL Draft: The BackUps

2018 marked a radical change in the Steelers bullpen philosophy. Dating back to the 1989 season when Chuck Noll had Todd Blackledge and Rick Strom backing up Bubby Brister, the Steelers practice has been to staff an experienced veteran behind their starter, followed by a young player who offer some sort of “upside” if not more.

  • The practice continued under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

That changed the moment the Steelers cut Landry Jones and decided go with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph behind Ben Roethlisberger. For the first time in over a generation, the Steelers had two men backing up their starting NFL quarterback who had never thrown and NFL pass.

  • Joshua Dobbs won the backup job with a stellar preseason underpinned by an unwavering work ethic.

He was called into action twice in the 2018 season, first against the Ravens where Dobbs audibled out of a running play and completed a critical 3rd and long while planting in the Steelers end zone. The poise and decisiveness of Dobbs’ execution was breathtaking.

  • The second time came in the 2nd half at Oakland. The truth is that Joshua Dobbs was far more tentative that day and looked out of rhythm with his receivers.

Mason Rudolph is an unknown at this point. If reports are to be believed, at least one of the key members of the Steelers brain trust had a 1st round grade on him going into the 2018 NFL Draft. The Steelers drafted him with their extra third round pick, giving up a 7th rounder to move ahead of the Bengals who were said to be targeting Rudolph.

  • By all accounts Mason Rudolph looked solid in preseason, but he wasn’t strong enough to beat out Dobbs.

That shouldn’t be to big of a knock of Mason Rudolph. Suffice to say, many NFL teams would love to have had a 3rd string quarterback of his pedigree.

The Steelers 2019 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftThe idea of the Steelers drafting a quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft is almost an academic question. Clearly, with Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph the Steelers don’t need to add quarterback depth in the draft.

  • What about finding Ben Roethlisberger’s replacement in the 2019 NFL Draft?

All pre-draft projections indicate that the franchise-capable quarterbacks will be long gone by the time the Steelers pick at 20th. Even if they’re not, the possibility of a strike or lockout in 2021 is very, very real.

That being the case, the Steelers really need to focus their draft capital on trying to win a Super Bowl before Ben Roethlisberger begins his “Life’s Work.”

Of course, if the Steelers found themselves in the same situation the Packers were in in the 2005 NFL Draft when Aaron Rodgers dropped in their laps the should consider pulling the trigger, but the chances of that happening are remote.

The Steelers quarterback needs in at quarterback in the 2019 NFL Draft must be considered Low.

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