Big Ben is banged up and struggling, but sinking Steelers have bigger problems
The most interesting thing about the NFL in general is how random it can be. One week a team can look like a Super Bowl threat. For the next week, it can look like a fading, drunk boxer who used to be a competitor.
Case in point: The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, who want to get back on their feet after an embarrassing 27:17 loss to a miserable Cincinnati Bengals team that improved to 3: 10: 1 on Monday night.
Just three weeks ago, the Steelers were sitting nicely in the AFC with an 11-0 record, which was their top grade after eleven games in the history of the franchise. The defense was powerful, with four dominant pass rushers. The Steelers buzzed with a quick passing game, led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, and a dynamic (but teardrop-heavy) reception corps consistent enough to overcome a shaky running game.
The way the season went was in many ways an expression of the optimism that Roethlisberger showed me about this year's team in August. After missing 14 games last year with a right elbow injury, he insisted he struggled through recovery because of the chance ahead. The Steelers already had a Super Bowl defense, he believed; After an 8-8 season, Pittsburgh only needed one offense to support its weight.
And that's exactly what the Steelers did for three months.
Ben Roethlisberger has struggled for the past few weeks, but the Steelers' problems go way beyond him. (Photo by Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)
Roethlisberger injuries aren't the only ones haunting Steelers
Again, football is fun here, and there's a reason championships aren't won in December. To win everything, a team needs talent and premium coaching, yes, but it also needs luck, especially when injured.
And it's hard to see how the Steelers have lost three times in the last three games, and no correlation between those issues and the loss of Bud Dupree, the Star Edge rusher who ended up winning a 19-14 Win against the Baltimore Ravens on December 2nd.
The Steelers' defense is still good. Cam Heyward remains a beast, as does Stephon Tuitt and the sensational T.J. Watt. While they are still number one in defensive DVOA, they haven't played like the dominant group we've gotten used to as injuries to Dupree and linebackers Devin Bush Jr., Robert Spillane and Vince Williams may take their toll to have.
And with the Steelers' defense no longer dominating, the offensive is forced to take the slack they couldn't.
Some of that is of course with Roethlisberger, and he will tell you that. His last three games have been mediocre as he completed 57 percent of his passes for five touchdowns and five turnovers. He had many difficult moments in Cincinnati Monday night, sailing some passes, not putting enough heat on others, and completing only 52 percent of his throws for 170 yards, a touchdown, a fumble and an election against the league's 25th defense in DVOA.
"I would say that I'm not consistent enough, which affects the offensive, as the ball is in my hand every game," said Roethlisberger after his last defeat. "I wouldn't say I feel 100 percent, but right now nobody does."
Roethlisberger appeared in the injury report a few weeks ago with a sick knee. This could be an issue affecting its accuracy and speed. None of this absolves his teammates and the Steelers' coaching team from taking the blame for their struggles. But in many ways, this happens to 38 year old quarterbacks - they get hit, they get injured, and they need help.
And far too often the people around Roethlisberger have let him down in the last three weeks.
Whether it's his recipients dropping 27 top-tier passes or his offensive line's inability to establish ground play - Pittsburgh ranks 30th out of 32 teams in the fast DVOA - and their blocks on non-fast throws to keep, the Steelers weren't at championship level around Roethlisberger for almost a month.
Could Pittsburgh follow the Patriots' plan for 2018?
Do you remember when Tom Brady won a Super Bowl in 2019 at the age of 41? He did this while relying heavily on strong ground play and excellent defense, while firing some action shots at the right moment. New England never asked him to bear the entire offense. The Patriots asked him to deliver in the clutch, which he did repeatedly during this championship run.
So yeah, there's no reason the Steelers couldn't use that 2018 Patriots fixture list to win a title with Roethlisberger this season or next, assuming he returns to the game in 2021 (as he supposedly expects) . And when Steelers trainer Mike Tomlin was asked on Tuesday how he knew that Roethlisberger was nearing the end of his career, he shrugged.
"That's not what I expect, so I don't know I'm sitting around waiting for it," said Tomlin. "I think we will cross that bridge when we get to it."
I don't blame Tomlin for taking that approach. This might not be top-notch Big Ben, but statistically he's been solid as he's on track to throw nearly 4,000 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. And after speaking to him in August, I have no doubt that he is competitive or looking to finish his career with a third Super Bowl title.
Linebacker Bud Dupree, whose pass-rushing presence was sorely missed, is one of the Steelers' injury problems. (Photo by Shelley Lipton / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
To make that happen, Pittsburgh will either need to put their offensive line together or strengthen it this off-season and bolster the running game. The goals in the passing game are solid, drop and all (and yes, they should sign JuJu Smith-Schuster again), but if the Steelers can move to a more game-centric attack it would help them protect their seasoned quarterback.
Whenever a team makes the playoffs, you can never count them. Maybe James Conner is coming back from a rejuvenated injury. Perhaps the veterans offensive line will dip into the fountain of youth and begin to reassert their physical dominance in January. Perhaps the rest of the Edge Rushers will step up alongside Watt to better fill in Dupree's absence.
No matter what, the Steelers will have work to do to get this off-season. You need to start planning for Roethlisberger's eventual departure and, as such, be sure to bring a young, talented backup with you. The chances of this guy overtaking Roethlisberger are slim, but he's a competitor and there is a chance that such a move might drive him.
And maybe that would be enough to bring Pittsburgh to a seventh Super Bowl win, which was so elusive under Tomlin, even though the Steelers' longtime head coach is much more interested in fixing their problems now rather than waiting until the off-season who starts on Sunday against the AFC South-leading Colts.
"We don't have to run out of the kitchen - we have to run in," said Tomlin, "and this team will provide that for us."
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