The Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2020 season with 11 wins. But at 38, Ben Roethlisberger wilted down the stretch, turning in two of the worst games of his career in losses to the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals and struggling otherwise to keep his head above water. The Bengals sacked him four times on Monday Night Football. The team lost four of its last five games, and got blown out against the Cleveland Browns in their first playoff game. All those sacks and struggles were a symptom of both Roethlisberger’s age-related issues and his offensive line fading. When the offseason came, future Hall of Fame center Maurkice Pouncey retired from that line, and the team cut guard David DeCastro, who’d starred next to him for most of the previous decade. The Steelers’ defense was great for most of the 2020, but the franchise was in salary cap hell and had to bid farewell to edge rusher Bud Dupree and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton. Additionally, time continued to march on, meaning Roethlisberger did not get younger heading into this year.
The disorienting thing about the run-up to 2021 was that the Steelers seemed content to simply run back 2020 with an older QB and a worse roster. There were five first-round QBs in April’s draft, but the Steelers weren’t among the teams publicly trying to trade up to get one. They brought back Roethlisberger on a reworked deal and even talked like they might keep him beyond this year. They drafted a running back, Najee Harris, in the first round, the kind of move a team should only make when it thinks it’s a player or two away from putting a unit over the top. (Running backs have short primes and are not great candidates to build around over many years.) It seemed ill-advised to put the young Harris and aging Roethlisberger behind a patchwork offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked 31st in the league entering the season—especially opposite a defense that appeared certain to decline at least a bit. But there they went.
The Steelers are 5–5–1, so one could argue this has all worked out better than it should have. Their past three games have included two losses (one blowout) and a rainy tie with the winless Detroit Lions that many onlookers concluded was the worst organized sporting event they’d ever watched. But they’re not out of the playoff race yet, and Roethlisberger has mixed in a few signs of life amid a year that has mostly confirmed that he’s at the end of the line. The head coach, Mike Tomlin, has still never posted a losing season and might conjure up a way to avoid one this year, even if a tie with the Lions serves as the ultimate technicality to keep that distinction alive. The Steelers aren’t at the bottom of the league. Unfortunately, they are somewhere that isn’t all that much better: stuck inside an inescapable purgatory of their own making.
The problem starts with Roethlisberger, who is geriatric by NFL QB standards. He no longer has the arm strength or play-extending ability that were once his hallmarks, so he gets rid of the ball faster than any other QB and throws it shorter distances than almost any of his peers. He’s still good enough to have some good moments, but they’re few and far between. He’s 34th in the league in PFF’s grading system, 24th in ESPN’s Quarterback Rating, and 27th in yards per throw. That’s a broad enough consensus to make him one of the worst passers in the game. For a sense of how bad he’s been, note that this video of Roethlisberger flailing against the Bengals in Week 3 actually shows clips from the better of his two games against Cincinnati this year. He was considerably worse in a 41–10 loss this past weekend:
Any quarterback could turn out to be a delightful surprise, but the 2022 draft is generally considered to be skimpy on QBs. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, who shares a practice facility and stadium with the Steelers, might be a first-round pick. So might Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell, and Liberty’s Malik Willis. None makes a critical mass of evaluators swoon like last year’s Trevor Lawrence–led class did, so even if the Steelers were slated to pick earlier than the middle of the first round, it’s not totally clear they’d be finding their next guy. I have begun to contemplate that the Steelers will bring back Roethlisberger yet again in 2022. I don’t expect it, and it would be a grisly idea, but the Steelers don’t have an obvious alternative. Roethlisberger’s backup, Mason Rudolph, is not going to be the answer either. Maybe Aaron Rodgers and Tomlin will move beyond flirting in 2022, but let’s not bank on that. For now, the Steelers are offensively anemic while asking Harris (248 touches in 11 games) to carry a huge offensive load behind a weak line and beside a one-dimensional quarterback.
A total bottoming-out isn’t worth rooting for, because sports should be fun and tanking is neither fun nor guaranteed to work. It’s also impossible for the Steelers now, as they have too many good players on their defense to be one of the worst teams in the league over the next year or two. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt might be the best non-Aaron Donald defender in the world. Defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is an ageless force. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has declined severely this year but is a young Pro Bowler. Still, the defense now has enough massive holes that it’s far from the elite unit it was over the past few years. This season, Pittsburgh is 20th in expected points added per play on defense , and has suffered from a mix of poor play (linebacker Devin Bush) and injuries (Watt, tackle Tyson Alualu, and end Stephon Tuitt). This is Tuitt’s second injury-plagued season out of three. They haven’t replaced Hilton at slot cornerback, and the team’s best cornerback this year, Joe Haden, has already declared that he’s heading to free agency after the season. The Steelers also already declined a contract option on safety Terrell Edmunds, whom they picked with Lamar Jackson still on the board in 2018. In other news, Jackson is going to run for 700 yards and five touchdowns when the Ravens visit Heinz Field this weekend.
You’d have to squint to find a way for the defense to get back to its recent highs, even assuming Tomlin cuts ties with defensive coordinator Keith Butler after the year. Again, it won’t be unspeakably bad as long as Watt and Heyward are on their current planes of performance, and that should keep the Steelers from being so horrendous that they’d feel inclined to rebuild their whole roster or receive an early enough draft pick in the right year to replace Roethlisberger with someone good. Maybe they’ll take a big 2022 draft swing, but that’ll carry its own risks.
If there’s any reason for optimism, it’s that Tomlin has been better than any coach at putting a floor under his team—historically, that’s been at least a .500 record—and the leap from seven or eight wins to 10 or 11 and a playoff spot can sometimes be quick. The team will also have some spending money this offseason for the first time in a while. But for things to get much better, the QB play will need to get better, and that might require a rabbit in a hat.
It makes matters worse that the Baltimore Ravens have Jackson and the Bengals have Joe Burrow for the foreseeable future, meaning two of the most dynamic young QBs in the NFL are competing in the same division with late-stage Roethlisberger. In that light, that the Steelers have exactly as many wins as losses through an odd number of games, thanks to the only tie of the season in the entire NFL, feels like a fitting achievement. While their rivals are moving forward, the Steelers are running in place inside a tunnel with no end in sight.