Big Ben @ His 11th Hour. But Steelers Won’t Seek His Replacement in the 2021 NFL Draft

“Stability.” “NFL” = not-for-long meaning stability is in short supply. Pittsburgh Steelers are the NFL’s most stable team, and they’ve enjoyed unprecedented stability at the quarterback position, thanks to the presence of Ben Roethlisberger.

  • Pittsburgh’s passion once rose and fell on news of Roethlisberger’s health.

This is no exaggeration. During his sophomore season, KDKA interrupted regular programing for updates on a minor Roethlisberger knee injury. When Roethlisberger first uttered the “R” word following the 2016 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots, he sent Steelers Nation into an anxiety attack.

That’s changed.

The Steelers Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic playoff debacle against the Browns marked a turning point. For the first time management question whether Ben Roethlisberger would be back, while large segments of the press and the fans questions whether Roethlisberger should return.

Ben will be back, but his contract voids after the Super Bowl. Big Ben is rapidly reaching his 11th hour. So how should this impact the Steelers strategy for the 2021 NFL Draft?

Ben Roethlisberger, Ben Roethlisberger replacement, Steelers 2021 NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger on September 15th 2021. Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images

Steelers Depth Cart at Quarterback: The Starter

Ben Roethlisberger’s story is well known. With Pittsburgh on the clock in the 2004 NFL Draft, Bill Cowher was leaning towards Shawn Andrews, but Dan Rooney cocked his arm back imitating a throwing motion and Paul Tagliabue made it official a few minutes later.

  • It’s rare that a franchise quarterback falls into the lap of team with a championship roster.
  • But when it does the team had better capitalize on it. Fast.

Like Steve Young and the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger delivered, leading the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. But like Dan Marino and the Dolphins, as those Super Bowl veterans aged and retired, the Steelers have struggled to rebuild their roster around Roethlisberger.

  • Many fail to appreciate just how close Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin came to pulling it off.
Steelers Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell

The Steelers Killer Bees were too true to their name. Photo Credit: pegitboard.com

Injuries and ego colluded to prevent The Killer Bees from reaching their potential, while Ryan Shazier’s injury ripped a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.

  • In many ways Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season mirrors that same story arc.

No one knew how Roethlisberger would play following elbow surgery. But in the first months of the season, Ben Roethlisberger played some of his best football ever. His release as lightning quick, his short and medium passes exited with laser-like precision.

He was even in the league MVP conversation.

  • Sure, the long ball was an issue.

But Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington all grew pretty adept at drawing pass interference penalties downfield. But then the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses took away the short pass. Receivers (and tight ends – Eric Ebron) started dropping passes.

  • ACL injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the defense.

As he always did, Roethlisberger’s response was to try to take the team on his shoulders. Something he no longer has the talent to do.

Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted Ben Roethlisberger back, but only at a discount. Ben Roethlisberger agreed, and he took one for the team.

The salary cap has stripped the Steelers of their depth, opening the question of whether Pittsburgh has enough pieces to make a Super Bowl run, but it says here that Ben Roethlisberger showed enough to justify a return in 2021.

Steelers Quarterback Depth Chart: The Backups

Mason Rudolph, Steelers vs Dolphins,

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

Drafted with an extra 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mason Rudolph arrived as a potential successor to Roethlisberger. Since then Mason Rudolph has started nine games and logged snaps in 3 more.

  • Results have been mixed.

At times, like during the first half of the Dolphins game or the 2nd Bengals game, Mason Rudolph looked as lost and clueless as Kordell Stewart did in his lowest moments. At other moments, such has his starts against the Rams in ’19 and the Browns in ’21, he looked like a signal caller who could develop into a Neil O’Donnell like starter.

  • The Steelers brass clearly isn’t hanging its hat on the latter scenario coming to fruition.

Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought Ben Roethlisberger back, nor would they have taken a flyer on Dwayne Haskins, a failed former first rounder out of Washington.

The Steelers 2021 Quarterback Draft Needs

steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2018 NFL DraftIn abstract football terms, the Steelers need for a quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft should be Moderate-High. They’re going to need a starter perhaps as early as 2022, and no sane person would commit to that starter being Rudolph or Haskins.

But, with usual “unless someone falls” caveat, the Steelers aren’t finding that starter drafting so late in the first round.

  • And drafting one in the middle rounds would be akin to drafting another Rudolph or Haskins.

The Steelers have two of those. And really, taking another Tee Martin or Dennis Dixon like flyer in the 5th or 6th round would mean using a pick on a player who can’t help in 2021. Therefore the Steelers need at quarterback going into the 2021 draft should be considered as Low.

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Fretting about Free Agency? The NFL Draft is the Steelers Christmas Tree, Free Agents are Just Stocking Stuffers

If you’re a Steelers fan, you’re likely not all that comfortable with their activity during the first two weeks of the NFL’s unrestricted free-agency period.

But you should have known they weren’t going to do much, right? The salary-cap problems were well-documented, and, besides, the Steelers’ history of making free-agent splashes should have been another clue.

Perhaps the re-signing of Cam Sutton and the surprise re-signings of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyson Alualu weren’t enough. Also, the outside signings of free agents such as Joe Haeg and Miles Killebrew probably didn’t move the needle on your excitement meter.

  • Do you know what always moves the excitement needle for Steelers fans?

The annual NFL Draft. I mean, my goodness, the talk about the popular event — an event whose television ratings always eclipse those of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — begins the second the Steelers’ season comes to an end and doesn’t stop until well-after their final pick is announced on Day 3 of draft weekend.

There are millions of NFL fans who probably love the draft more than they do an actual football game. I don’t, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. Why? Because the draft is the life-blood of the National Football League. It’s actually the life-blood of every professional sports league.

Justin Layne, Steelers vs Cardinals

Justin Layne’s early NFL action against the Cardinals in 2019. Photo Credit: AP, via Tribune-Review

The Steelers and the NFL Draft

Every viable prospect is poked, prodded and interviewed countless times in the weeks and months leading up to the draft. There are few secrets by the time the annual event rolls around every April.

Teams are looking for players to help them win now and in the future. They’re searching for prospects that will lead them to the Promised Land–better known as the Super Bowl.

My point is, we dissect every single Steelers’ draft choice — and even the undrafted free agents — once they arrive and speculate on what they can do for the team now and in the future. Yet, the second unrestricted free agency rolls around every March, we forget about many of those players and want Pittsburgh to go shopping for shiny new toys.

Take cornerback Justin Layne, for example. The Steelers made Justin Layne a third-round draft choice out of Michigan State just two years ago. People were excited about him. Many were of the opinion that he was a great value pick and could wind up being a steal. When a player is selected in the third round, I think it’s reasonable to expect him to at least be competing for a starting job by his third season.

Here we are in 2021, and Layne is heading into his third season. I was as disappointed by the release of Steven Nelson as anyone. The Steelers obviously did this to save money, sure, but maybe Pittsburgh also cut Nelson knowing that Layne was ready to make the jump from backup to starting corner.

Another example is Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle that was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Okorafor has already started a number of games–including 15 last year. Heading into his fourth season, perhaps Pittsburgh is confident that he can be the long-term answer at either left or right tackle.

We really don’t know how the Steelers feel about players like Layne and Okorafor, but we might get our answer by how they address both corner and offensive tackle during the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for Alex Highsmith, the outside linebacker taken in the third round last year, we knew right away that the former Charlotte walk-on was selected to be the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, who had designs on making a ton of money as an unrestricted free agent–he did.

After a promising rookie season, Highsmith will now get that chance in 2021. What’s wrong with that plan? What’s wrong with promoting Layne if he’s ready?

This is what the draft is for. Heck, people are tracking the Pro Day visits of head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert as if they’re foreign spies.

There’s obviously a lot of time and money that goes into the NFL and these prospects. If you can hit on a class or two, it allows you to remain competitive for years.

Take the Steelers 2017 Draft class, for example. I think T.J. Watt‘s career speaks for itself. You can argue about many aspects of Smith-Schuster’s game and non-football exploits, but you can’t say that he hasn’t been a productive NFL receiver. As for Sutton, a third-round pick from Tennessee, he may wind up being more than just the starting slot corner; he may be the number two corner.

The Steelers drafts of 2008 and 2009 produced very little in terms of long-term production (at least for the Steelers), and by the time those Super Bowl veterans from the 2000s were ready to get on with their life’s work, the cupboard was pretty bare; the Steelers didn’t miss the playoffs in both 2012 and 2013 by accident.

In conclusion, the Steelers didn’t do a whole lot in free agency, but maybe that’s because they believe in their recent draft choices.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

 

 

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Zach Banner Stays, Tyson Alualu Leaves, Vince Williams a Cap Casualty

On the first day of “legal tampering” the Steelers opened free agency by signing Cam Sutton. Cam Sutton was their most important “signable” free agent. On day two Pittsburgh addressed the man who was arguably their 2nd most important “signable” priority by resigning offensive guard Zach Banner to a two year contract.

  • All of the news was neither good, nor entirely expected.

Tyson Alualu got a 2 year contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that had drafted him in 2010. As mentioned in Alualu’s free agent profile, Alualu delivered excellent “bang for the salary cap buck” for Pittsburgh and was the unsung hero on the Ste

steelers 2019 season, T.J. Watt, Mason Rudolph, Maurkice Pouncey, Zach Banner

The Pittsburgh Steelers sharpened their focus on team in 2019. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

elers defensive line in 2020. Moreover, if reports are correct, the deal he got in Jacksonville is only slightly larger than the one he could have expected in Pittsburgh, showing just how cash strapped the Steelers are.

  • The Steelers also made another move, this one while not a surprise, it was disappointing.

To create salary cap space, the Steelers decided to part ways with eight year veteran Vince Williams, presumptively clearing the way for newly resigned Robert Spillane to assume duties as a full-time starter at inside linebacker. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin are far more qualified than this scribe to make this “bang for the buck” calculation, but Vince Williams will be missed. More to come on this front.

Finally, Mike Hilton appears to be signing with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Banner and Another Two Year Deal…

Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports that Zach Banner’s new deal is for $9.5 million and includes a $3.25 million signing bonus. Unlike Cam Sutton, the amount of money that Banner got wasn’t a suprise, given Banner’s more limited resume and his recent ACL tear.

  • Like Cam Sutton’s deal, Zach Banner’s is also for two years….

Again, this is slightly out of character for the Steelers, who typically give 2nd year contracts that last for 3 years, or more. Moreover, veterans like David DeCastro, Joe Haden and Steven Nelson are all heading into the final year of their contracts, leading to speculation that the Steelers Brain Trust has penciled in 2021 as the final year it will make a run with this core of veterans, including Ben Roethlisberger.

It is too early to tell, but at this point we can say “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence….”

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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Mike Hilton Is a Steelers Success Story, But This Free Agent Will Find Fortune Elsewhere

Undrafted Rookie Free Agents have been the secret to Kevin Colbert’s success. OK, his record of only wiffing on two first round draft picks (Jarvis Jones and Artie Burns) since returning to Pittsburgh has had a big role in his success.

  • But Kevin Colbert’s ability to mine the NFL’s scrap heap for diamonds is unprecedented.

Just look at Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII. Super Bowl XL featured the longest run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, authored by Willie Parker. Super Bowl XLIII featured the longest return in Super Bowl history, authored by James Harrison. Both men were undrafted rookie free agents that Kevin Colbert spotted but the rest of the NFL overlooked.

  • Strictly speaking Mike Hilton wasn’t an undrafted rookie free agent when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

But he fits the prototype pretty well, has started for 4 straight seasons making himself as an impact player and he’s now a free agent. Will he stay in Pittsburgh long enough to make a run at a ring? Let’s find out.

T.J. Watt, Mike Hilton, Philip Rivers, Steelers vs Colts

T.J. Watt strip sacks Philip Rivers and Mike Hilton is there. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Mike Hilton’s Steelers Career

Jacksonville signed then cut Mike Hilton as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016. The Patriots swooped in and added him to their practice squad, but Hilton’s stay in Beantown lasted all of one week. Mike Hilton held a pink slip in his hand for most of the rest of the season, until Pittsburgh signed him to the practice squad in December 2016.

Hilton was the St. Vincents sensation during the summer of 2017, a feat which landed him both a roster spot and a gig as the Steelers starting slot corner. As a rookie Mike Hilton made two interceptions, knocked away six passes, while flying in under the radar for four quarterback sacks.

The sack sagged a bit in 2018 and 2019, but Hilton’s consistent play has continued for a Steelers secondary that has gone from a team weakness to a strength with him a part of the lineup. In 2020, Mike Hilton posted what might have been his best season, pulling down 3 interceptions, sacking opposing quarterback 3 times and registering 8 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

And he did this while splitting time with Cameron Sutton.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

NFL teams must have 3 competent cornerbacks. A starter-caliber nickle back is no longer a “Nice to have.” Mike Hilton has fulfilled that role for 4 years, and has delivered excellence to the position. He’s been durable playing in 59 games in four years, and at age 27 still has many years of his prime ahead of him.

  • Mike Hilton has an uncanny an ability to be around the ball

You can see it in his high sack total and impressive tackles for loss numbers, you can also see it in the photo above, T.J. Watt is the one making the strip-sack of Philip Rivers, but Hilton is right there in the frame.

Really, the only question is why haven’t the Steelers already locked Mike Hilton up to a long term contract?

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton had a great year in 2020, and he did it while splitting time with Cam Sutton.

There’s a reason for that, and that’s because Cam Sutton is a better coverage cornerback than Mike Hilton is. Cam Sutton might not be as good at pressuring the passer as Mike Hilton nor can he create mischief behind the line of scrimmage, but Sutton can do something that Mike Hilton hasn’t done and probably never will:

  • Move outside when needed.

Joe Haden will be 32 next season. If there’s one position where players tend to “get old fast” in the NFL, it is at cornerback. All signs indicate that Joe Haden will be back in 2021, but then what? Justin Layne certainly hasn’t shown he’s the answer there. Cam Sutton has shown that he might be.

The Steelers quite simply cannot sign both Cam Sutton AND Mike Hilton, and given a choice between the two, they should opt for Sutton.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Mike Hilton in 2021

Mike Hilton has been a tremendous player for the Steelers and is yet another feather in Kevin Colbert’s cap. Perhaps under a normal year, the Steelers could afford to bring him back and Cam Sutton.

There’s no way they can sign both Cam Sutton and Mike Hilton and they probably won’t even try. Expect Mike Hilton to find his fortune outside of Pittsburgh.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2021 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2021 free agency focus articles.

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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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Ben Roethlisberger Must to Put his Money Where His Mouth Is

Art Rooney II beat me to the punch.

Ben Roethlisberger’s future in Pittsburgh is the story of the Steelers 2021 off season. The sequel to my piece comparing the current treatment of Ben Roethlisberger to what the Blonde Bomber endured early in his career was to carry the headline, “The Steelers Should Welcome Roethlisberger Back. But on One Condition.”

Leave it to Steelers President Art Rooney to steal my thunder as Art II declared: “We’ve been, I think, up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn’t have him back under the current contract” and then later clarifying “We’d like to see Ben back for another year if that can work.”

So there you go. The head of the Steelers brain trust put black and white: Ben Roethlisberger’s the right man to be the Steelers signal caller for 2021, but only at the right price.

  • Art Rooney II hit the nail on the head.

But since I’ve been wrong about Rooney being right before, (see Le’Veon Bell’s 2nd franchise tag) let’s give the counter argument its due.

Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger at at press conference. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Real Risks of a Roethlisberger Return

Ben Roethlisberger is turning 39. That’s geriatric in NFL years. Moreover, he had major elbow surgery in 2019.

  • Father Time began to catch Ben Roethlisberger in 2020.

Ben Roethlisberger began 2020 playing better than anyone had a right to expect. Disagree? Then let me ask: Would you have gone to Vegas and wagered $100 on Ben Roethlisberger leading the NFL in release time in 2020? I wouldn’t have either.

  • But Ben Roethlisberger’s mobility, once his trademark, now eludes him.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bengals

Chase Claypool can’t come down with the ball. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla

So does the deep ball. At first, it seemed like it might be a question of timing. By mid-season the goal of throwing deep to Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool seemed to be to draw pass interference penalties. In November, the running game imploded into oblivion. Defenses answered by choking the short passing game. Roethlisberger responded by trying to go deep.

It is almost as if Roethlisberger is struggling to get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm, to borrow Jim Wexell’s words. When Roethlisberger gets comfortable, he recovers his greatness. After throwing 3 interceptions, Ben went 38-51-3-1 for 435 yards in the “Hindenburg Rescues the Titanic” playoff loss to the Browns.

  • Those are championship passing numbers.

But who can win when their quarterback starts 9-17-66-0-3? No one.

Could Ben adequately get comfortable with the “bionics” of his new arm with a full off season of rehab and workouts with wide outs?

Now add that “If” to other “Ifs” about whether the Steelers can: Beef up the offensive line sufficiently, find a starter-capable running back, find a starter-capable tight end, keep or find corner and nickel backs, develop Alex Highsmith to replace Bud Dupree all while navigating salary cap Armageddon.

  • Look at it that way, and tearing it all down and rebuilding is tempting. Very tempting.

But the Steelers would be wise to welcome Roethlisberger back. It all comes down to a simple mathematical equation.

Why Joe Greene + T.J. Watt = Welcome Roethlisberger Back

Joe Greene wore number 75 and T.J. Watt wears number 90. Put those digits together and you get 7590.

On December 10th, 1983 Terry Bradshaw threw his final touchdown to Calvin Sweeney  at Shea Stadium. On September 19th, Ben Roethlisberger completed his first pass to Plaxico Burress at M&T Bank Stadium.

  • 7590 days passed between those two events.

Terry Bradshaw,

Terry Bradshaw wears a grim look during Steelers Mini Camp on May 29, 1984, at Three Rivers Stadium. (Photo Credit: Jim Fetter, The Pittsburgh Press)

Seven thousand, five hundred ninety days is a long time. Memories of Mark Malone’s 5 interception outing in Cleveland to Neil O’Donnell’s hook ups with Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX to Kordell Stewart‘s struggles in the dark days of 1998 and 1999 make that wait seem even longer.

But 7,590 days really isn’t that long when it comes to finding a franchise quarterback. Minnesota is still waiting on the next Fran Tarkenton. Joe Burrow’s presence notwithstanding, Cincinnati still searches for the next Ken Anderson. And yes, the New York Jets are still struggling to find their next Joe Namath.

Doubts about Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to rebound are legitimate, but so were the questions about Peyton Manning and Brett Favre when they left the Colts and Packers. Under normal circumstances taking the risk of welcoming Roethlisberger back would be a no brainer for the Steelers.

But these are not normal circumstances.

Time for Ben Roethlisberger to Put His Money Where his Mouth Is

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with the NFL’s salary cap, which could go as low as 176 million dollars. In 2020 it was $198.2 million. The Steelers already have 203 million in salary cap liabilities for 2021 with just 35 players under contract.

  • That puts them at $21 million over the cap, without drafting a player or signing a free agent.
  • The Steelers could fill out their roster with undrafted rookie free agents and STILL have to cut veterans.

And that’s where Ben Roethlisberger comes in.

Jerome Bettis, Alan Faneca, Dewayne Robertson, Steelers vs Jets, Steelers history vs Jets

Jerome Bettis hurdles guard Alan Faneca evading Dewayne Robertson in the Steelers 2004 AFC Divisional playoff win. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Ben Roethlisberger will count $41 million against the Steelers salary cap. $22 million of that comes in bonuses from restructures, $4 million is base salary and the rest is a roster bonus due in March. The plan was to use these pages to call for Ben Roethlisberger take a pay cut to return, similar to what Jerome Bettis did in 2004 and 2005.

Fans asking or expecting players to give “hometown discounts” or take pay cuts simply isn’t realistic, which is why I’ve never done that before. And I don’t have to now, as Ben Roethlisberger told Ed Bouchette:

I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year. I don’t care about my pay at all this year.

There you have it. Ben Roethlisberger currently contributes to the Steelers salary cap problem, but he’s offering to be part the solution. There are 18 million ways he can do that. If Ben Roethlisberger were to bite the bullet and agree to play for the veteran minimum, the Steelers would get very close cap compliance.

  • Sure, Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan would have work to do.

But with the stroke of a pen, Ben Roethlisberger could make a huge financial sacrifice that would transform the Steelers impending salary cap hell into a mild form of salary cap purgatory for Pittsburgh.

After publishing is initial article, Ed Bouchette warned readers that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t offering a reverse blank check to the Steelers. That might be the case, and playing for the veteran minimum isn’t the only viable option.

But if Ben Roetlisberger truly believes he can return to championship form and truly wants to do all he can to help the Steelers do that, then he must put his money where his mouth is.

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Are the Steelers Super Bowl Contenders in 2020? Here are 2 Questions They Must Answer First

Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl contenders in 2020? To find out, they need to answer two other questions:

  • Can the Steelers continue to roll with Roethlisberger?
  • Can Devin Bush stand tall for Pittsburgh?

Every preseason analysis piece this site has published since our launch in 2008 has stipulated that the Steelers Super Bowl hopes and Ben Roethlisberger’s health are linked. And that analysis has been spot on.

  • Late season injuries to Ben Roethlisberger derailed the endings of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
  • Mid season injuries helped compromise the Steelers playoff seedings in 2015 and 2016.

Of course there are other reasons why the Steelers have failed to return to the Big Dance since 2010. But since Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have gone into the season’s final weekend with all playoff possibilities eliminated only once.

  • That’s the difference a healthy franchise quarterback can make.

Everything we know indicates that Ben Roethlisberger’s arm is completely healed and that he’s throwing as well as ever. This is good. But we won’t know for sure how good Roethlisberger is until he’s tested in real game conditions.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Broncos, Steelers AFC championship Broncos

Ben Roethlisberger in the 2005 AFC Championship Game. Photo Credit: Denver Post

But if Ben Roethlisberger can return to even 85% or 90% of what he was in 2018, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, Vance McDonald, James Conner and Benny Snell give Big Ben the weapons he needs to break the Steelers out of the “One offensive touchdown a game” jail that trapped them last year.

But cynics will note, “Ah, but they only had Ben Roethlisberger for 6 quarters last year, and still traveled to Baltimore for their last game with their playoff hopes alive….”

  • This is true.

And this truth carries us to our 2nd question. There is one player who is just as important as Ben Roethlisberger (Mark Kaboly would argue more important), and his name is Devin Bush. If you have trouble understanding this then think back to late 2016 and early 2017 when the Steelers defense was quietly forging its way to greatness.

Devin Bush, Devin Bush touchdown, Steelers vs Chargers

Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

That quest halted with Ryan Shazier’s injury and only resumed after the Steelers traded up to grab Devin Bush with the 8th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. Critics could argue that most of Bush’s splash plays came early in the season, and that his snap count tapered off during the second half of the season.

  • This is precisely the point.

A year ago the Steelers had Mark Barron to spell Devin Bush when necessary. Today, Mark Barron is a Denver Bronco. Losses of Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Bud Dupree and/or T.J. Watt would weaken Pittsburgh’s defense, but they have players to help compensate. In contrast, the Steelers are almost as thin at inside linebacker as they were when they lost Ryan Shazier.

Success for the Steelers in 2020 hinges on healthy and productive seasons from Roethlisberger and Bush.

Final Act of the Roethlisberger Era? Then Enjoy It

It has been a dozen years since the Steelers played in the Super Bowl. Since then Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been methodically rebuilding towards a return. In that time, the Steelers have:

Through it all has been the latent yet palpable ticking of Big Ben’s clock in his race against Father Time.Now, in addition to that ticking clock, COVID-19’s salary cap implications threaten to force the Steelers to dismantle the team in 2021.

The Steelers have been Super Bowl contenders every year since they drafted Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. 2020 could be his final shot at bringing Lombardi Number 8 back to Pittsburgh.

But the good news is that if the Roethlisberger era Steelers are entering their final act as contenders, then they have a strong chance of writing a happy ending.

 

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Glad to be Wrong! Steelers Sign Cam Heyward to 5 Year Extension

Count this as another time when a blogger begs to be wrong, but this time gets his wish.

Less than a week ago yours truly suggested that COVID-19 would test “The Steelers Way” like never before. Namely, the expected 2021 NFL salary cap drop salary cap drop would complicate the Steelers ability to do one of the things they’ve always done best – resign their own players before they reach free agency.

  • The implications for retaining a player like Cam Heyward appeared to be ominous.

I wasn’t alone. Just three days ago Ed Bouchette of The Athletic was beating a similar drum of gloom and doom one the prospects of keeping Cam Heyward in Pittsburgh.

  • How good it is to be wrong!

Steelers.com announced that Cam Heyward had signed a 5 year extension, and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports that the deal is for $75.1 million dollars and includes 65.6 million in new money. The deal will make Heyward the highest paid defensive player over 30.

Cameron Heyward, Cam Heyward, Nick Chubb, Tyson Alualu, Steelers vs Browns

Cam Heyward tackles Nick Chubb. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Although Cameron Heyward will turn 31 this year, he is coming off what was arguably his best season thus far. Cam Heyward was a one man wrecking crew in 2019, registering 9 sacks, 11 tackles for losses, notching 23 QB hits, defensing 6 passes while making a career record 83 tackles.

Signing Heyward a “Win” But Complicated Challenges Lie Ahead

Signing Cam Heyward represents a major win for the Steelers front office, as it keeps their biggest player off the market long before the bidding will ever start. But Art Rooney II, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have difficult personnel choices to make.

Starters JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Bud Dupree and Matt Feiler will all reach the end of their rookie deals this year, and veteran Alejandro Villanueva is heading into the final year of his contract. Key reserves such as Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton are also heading into their final years.

The Steelers already have 40 players under contract for 2021 costing approximately 197 million dollars, putting them 22 million over the projected 2021 salary cap before factoring in Cam Heyward’s new deal or the 2021 draft class.

Difficult decisions lie ahead, but fortunately Cam Heyward won’t be a cap causality.

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Surprise! Turk Visits Ryan Switzer, Daniel McCullers as Steelers Make Initial Cuts

What will perhaps go down as the most unusual cut down day in Steelers history began with a few surprises. The NFL required all teams to cut down to the 53 man roster limit by 4:00 pm on Saturday September 5th, and the Steelers cuts included two names that everyone knows.

First, the Steelers cut Ryan Switzer, who served as their primary kick and punt returner during 2018 and 2019 and who had an extremely close relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Injuries limited Ryan Switzer’s effectiveness in 2019 and ultimately ended his season.

Ryan Switzer, Colin Dunlap, Steelers vs Tampa Bay

Cutting Ryan Switzer was the 1st Steelers surprise on cut down day, 2020.

Still, word out of Steelers training camp was that Ryan Switzer looked good, prompting Ed Bouchette of The Athletic to report that Switzer’s roster spot remained safe, while Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider leaned in that direction.

  • Say one thing about Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh, he has constantly surprised.

Going into the 2018 off season “D” seemed to indicate “disappointment” for Daniel McCullers time in Pittsburgh has his playing time regressed following his second year. Yet, the transition from John Mitchell to Karl Dunbar opened the door to a 2nd contract for Daniel McCullers, and although he didn’t play much more in 2018, he did well enough to get himself a third contract in 2019.

Daniel McCullers, Daniel McCullers Contract

Daniel McCullers closes in on RGIII in the 2016 season finale. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images via BTSC

Word in training camp was that Daniel McCullers had slimed down and was playing his best football yet.

  • Alas, his best wasn’t good enough, as the Steeler cut him.

The other Steelers initial cuts include:

Quarterback
Paxton Lynch

Running backs
Kerrith Whyte Jr.
Trey Edmunds
Wendell Smallwood

Wide Receivers
Saeed Blacknall
DeAndre Thompkins
Deon Cain
Amara Darboh

Offensive linemen
Christian DiLauro
John Keenoy
Derwin Gray
Anthony Coyle
Jarron Jones

Tight Ends
Kyle Markway
Kevin Rader

Defensive Linemen
Cavon Walker
Henry Mondeaux
Calvin Taylor

Linebackers
Tuzar Skipper
Jayrone Elliott

Defensive Backs
Trajan Bandy
John Battle
Antoine Brooks Jr

Special Teams
Punter Corliss Waitman and long snapper Liam McCullough

Of the group above, the only real surprise is the decision to cut Antoine Brooks Jr, the safety who was the Steelers 6th round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Maryland.

However, more surprises were to come…

Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin were only getting started.

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Is Cam Sutton Really Challenging Mike Hilton for the Starting Slot Corner Position?

As the Steelers unique Heinz Field training camp begins to ramp up this week, complete with padded practices, there aren’t many starting jobs up for grabs.

There’s the battle for the starting right tackle spot between Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner, along with…….that’s really about it.

  • Seriously, try naming another starting position that’s up for grabs, as the Steelers, a team that’s missed the playoffs the previous two years, prepare for the 2020 regular season.

There is still intrigue–including the continued progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger following major elbow surgery that snuffed out his 2019 campaign; the development of second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush, a talent that could take an already explosive defense to a whole new level in 2020; the overall abilities of a rookie class that includes receiver Chase Claypool, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, guard Kevin Dotson and running back Anthony McFarland; and, oh yes, the progress of third-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, just one season after he turned in mixed results–at best–while filling in for an injured Roethlisberger.

  • But, to reiterate, starting jobs?

Not much news there, not unless you’re talking about the starting slot corner position that has been occupied the past three seasons by Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent — a diamond in the rough, if you will — who Kevin Colbert plucked out of nowhere in 2017 (the Patriots practice squad, actually) to make the Steelers roster and fill the void at a position that had been seriously neglected for many years.

Mike Hilton, Mike Hilton interception Buccaneers, Joe Haden, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams

Mike Hilton’s Red Zone interception. Photo Credit: Mark LoMoglio, AP via Tribune-Review

Not only did Hilton instantly fill a void, he became one of the better slot corners in the entire NFL, as the product from Ole Miss — or the same school that failed and oft-injured second-round pick (and believed to be slot-corner extraordinaire) Senquez Golson hailed from two years earlier–finished his rookie campaign with two interceptions, six passes-defensed and a whopping four sacks — including three in a blow-out victory over the Texans on Christmas Day.

  • Hilton has remained the Steelers starting slot corner–and one of the better ones in the league–ever since.

So who is supposedly coming for his job? How about Cameron Sutton, a third-round pick out of Tennessee in the 2017 NFL Draft. That’s right, Sutton is believed to be a serious contender for the slot corner role, this summer.

And far be it for me to contradict “they” two summers in a row, but if you think about it, why would you take a player like Hilton, again, someone who is considered to be one of the better slot corners in the NFL, and bench him in his fourth season? That was a rhetorical question, because you wouldn’t.

And the Steelers won’t, either. This is just my theory (my conspiracy theory, if you will), but I think Pittsburgh is hoping Sutton makes the competition for the supposed open slot corner position close at training camp, but not close enough that he wins.

  • Why? Because both Hilton and Sutton are unrestricted free agents, next spring.

There’s already so much tape on Hilton that, even if he loses his starting job in 2020, interested teams will know enough about him to offer him a fat contract in 2021. As for Sutton, the only way he will truly be on anyone’s radar is if he starts in 2020–and excels.

If you’re the Steelers, why would you risk it? They already know what they have in Hilton. They thought enough of his abilities to tender him and pay him $3.2 million for the 2020 season. However, the whole tender thing won’t work for Hilton, next season. He’ll be able to shop his services to the highest bidder–and the highest bidder is likely to pay him much more money than the Steelers and their ongoing salary cap restrictions (restrictions that are about to get worse due to the revenue-shrinking pandemic)–would ever seriously consider.

With that in mind, you let Hilton start one more year at slot corner. In the meantime, you can keep Sutton in the same versatile role he’s been in since his rookie season.

Starting next season, the Steelers let Hilton walk and offer Sutton a team-friendly multi-year contract and hope that he settles for an annual salary on par with the $3.2 million Hilton is making in 2020.

  • But if Sutton becomes the starting slot corner this season, chances are, Pittsburgh won’t be able to afford to retain either him or Hilton in 2021.

Sound logical? I think so. The Steelers have a good thing going on defense, especially in a secondary that has seemingly found all the right parts after many years of struggle.

  • No sense in upsetting the apple-cart now, not when the unit looks poised to have another dominant season.

Let Hilton do his thing for one more season. After that, give the starting slot corner job to Sutton.

That’s my plan.

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