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Despite a late-season collapse following an 11-0 start and an equally disappointing first-round playoff exit, the Pittsburgh Steelers approached the 2021 season with plans of gearing up for possibly one more run at a Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm.
The 39-year-old face of the franchise reworked his contract and declared himself rejuvenated and still capable of playing at a high level. Meanwhile, a flurry of additional contract restructurings and cost-saving measures, free agent signings on short-term deals and prime draft selections gave the Steelers – who always seem to avoid making wholesale changes – hope that they could delay the inevitable one more time.
And so began the quest for redemption.
It all started with such promise, as Pittsburgh opened the season with a potential statement win over highly touted Buffalo on the Bills’ home turf. But in two short weeks since, the Steelers have come crashing back to reality.
Two straight losses, both at home, have followed, with each bringing a new level of alarm.
When they lost 26-17 to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 2, the Steelers appeared a notch or two below one of the hottest teams in the NFL as the Raiders.
But then came Sunday’s 24-10 thumping to the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, who had lost five straight games at Heinz Field, and the Steelers appeared woefully inept in just about every facet of the game while falling to 1-2 and into last place in the AFC North.
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That win over Buffalo feels so long ago. And it’s becoming abundantly clear that rather than contending for a Super Bowl, the Steelers are in for a long and frustrating campaign with a host of problems and no easy fixes.
At a time when a select few quarterbacks have figured out how to defy Father Time and play well in their late 30s, and in the case of Tom Brady their 40s, the Steelers hoped that Roethlisberger could do the same.
But as was the case late last season, Big Ben’s skills are on a rapid decline. And despite his expansive knowledge of the game, his physical limitations also have led to mental mistakes.
He’s no longer the game-changing, cannon-armed quarterback capable of carrying a franchise.
After completing just 56.25% of his passes for 188 yards and a touchdown in the season opener, Roethlisberger has remained uneven in his play. On Sunday, he did top the 300-yard mark, but it took 58 pass attempts (with 38 completions) to do so, and Roelisberger posted a season-low 70.9 passer rating.
Hampered by a pectoral strain that forced him to miss practice time leading up to the game, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions with only one touchdown pass and was sacked four times.
But Roethlisberger doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the offense’s struggles. The Steelers’ offensive line – a unit overhauled this offseason with the intention of providing better protection – also played poorly. As a result, Roethlisberger never looked comfortable. With his team in need of scoring drives late in the game, the quarterback repeatedly settled for check-down throws rather than aggressive passes beyond the sticks.
Swing pass by Ben on 4th and 10, down 24 points?pic.twitter.com/2JAQX86Uh2
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 26, 2021
Chemistry remains elusive for this revamped offensive front, which features two rookies (left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green) in starting roles. Running lanes proved hard to come by, and penalties also hampered the unit’s production.
Ineffectiveness in the run-blocking department translated into a tough day for rookie Najee Harris, who mustered just 2.9 yards per carry and through three games has yet to top the 50-yard rushing mark.
In another display of uncharacteristic struggles, Pittsburgh also lost the battle in the trenches on defense. Playing without injured starting defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu and linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, the Steelers allowed Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon to rush for 5 yards per carry, and the defense didn’t register a single sack, ending an NFL-record 75-game streak.
A lack of pressure up front in turn put a heavier burden on a Steelers secondary that continues to surrender big plays.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin rattled off a laundry list of mental errors that his players had committed and concluded, “We didn’t play smart enough today.”
But equally as troubling was the lack of urgency the Steelers exhibited from top to bottom. Tomlin blamed his players for a lack of execution, but play-calling also reflected complacency from his staff.
Growing pains along the offensive line can be expected. But the Steelers need someone to help offset elements of inexperience. At this stage of his career, Roethlisberger isn’t capable of consistently doing that, especially with top weapon JuJu Smith-Schuster injured. And given the fact that the 18-year veteran quarterback is already banged up and playing behind a shaky line, it’s fair to wonder if Roethlisberger can even hold up much longer.
Thus far, a disjointed and undermanned defense has proven incapable of bailing out the struggling offense. But the Steelers have to hope that improved health of this unit can improve their overall outlook.
"We're a 1-2 football team, so we've got to be better. We're not putting ourselves in position to win playing the way we played today."
The road ahead only becomes more challenging for the Steelers, however. Dates with the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns all lie ahead. It's very possible that the Steelers could be looking at 1-6 before the schedule's level of difficulty decreases with a Nov. 8 matchup against the struggling Chicago Bears.
Such a start doesn’t at all align with what the Steelers envisioned this offseason. But given the signs of decline exhibited by Roethlisberger, along with the struggles of the offensive and defensive fronts to start the season, this squad seemingly is teetering on the edge of disaster rather than on the verge of a quest for redemption.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pittsburgh Steelers' season teetering on brink of disaster