The Steelers have a Big Ben issue. Not a Mike Tomlin problem

The temptation will be to play the hits when we explain what happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. We’ll talk about Mike Tomlin’s coaching decisions or lament the defensive injuries. Maybe we’ll gripe about the lack of an assertive running game or roll the film on a wild shotgun snap just seconds into Pittsburgh’s 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns, leading to an instant seven-point deficit the Steelers couldn’t afford.

If we’re being honest, this loss was a Ben Roethlisberger story. It’s a tale about three first-half interceptions that dug a monumental hole, and an offense that continues to be geared toward an unrealistic quarterback workload, rather than a power running mentality that crushed the souls of opponents in the best of times. If we can see past a bloated Sunday night stat sheet padded against one of the NFL’s worst secondaries, we can see what has been coming for a while. Either the Steelers are going to fundamentally change what their offense is to suit what has become the sunset of Big Ben’s career, or they are going to grapple with what it will take to get this team back to what it used to be: A powerful running team balanced by a dominant defense and a quarterback with the ability to break open games through chunk plays rather than high-volume passing attempts.

There’s no shame in recognition, by the way. Roethlisberger has had a brilliant career and he’s still capable of putting up big numbers when he’s allowed to throw 40-plus times a game. But he’s not the same player he used to be, and failing to recognize that heading into this offseason would be pushing off the inevitable change that will become only uglier the longer Pittsburgh waits.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) sits on the bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey (53) following a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns in an NFL wild-card playoff football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger (7) sits on the bench next to center Maurkice Pouncey following a 48-37 loss to the Browns in an AFC wild-card playoff game in Pittsburgh on Sunday. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

It’s time to make the change. Not just because of Roethlisberger’s basically untenable $41.25 million salary-cap hit next season, but also because you don’t have to guess at what is coming where it concerns his game. The drop is steep. And it’s coming. If you need any more proof of that, consider Roethlisberger’s elbow surgery last season and then watch his accuracy as he attempts to power the ball outside of the hashmarks or deep downfield.

As one league source watching the game texted Sunday night, “He looks like Philip Rivers out there.”

That’s not a flattering comparison in 2020. And for the Steelers to assume it will get better from here would be tantamount to roster malpractice, especially when this will be a lucrative offseason for a possible quarterback addition. A multitude of younger bridge veterans will be available who could keep the Steelers in contention next season and beyond. And not just a roll-of-the-dice reclamation on someone like the New York JetsSam Darnold or the Philadelphia EaglesCarson Wentz. Realistically, the Steelers would need to look no further than Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, who is expected to be available on the trade market and would be an upgrade keeping Pittsburgh in Super Bowl contention for the next several years. Even if the Steelers prefer a shorter bridge commitment than Stafford, there’s also the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, who appears to still have a few more prime years left in the tank.

Pittsburgh can’t sit on its hands and hope that Roethlisberger’s punchy stats in 2020 are a sign of a renaissance. This isn’t a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees situation. All three of those quarterbacks spent the majority of their 30s constantly fine-tuning their diets and physiques in the offseason, constantly striving to push their prime into their 40s. Roethlisberger? He creates a big story when he shows up to camp with his weight down. It’s an aberration in his history, not the norm. Expecting that to suddenly change when he’s already coming off major elbow surgery and turning 39 in March is asking a lot. It’s risking even more given the pivot point facing the franchise.

None of this is to remove responsibility from Tomlin or the coaching staff for the end of this season. Tomlin has made his share of in-game mistakes, including the questionable punt call against the Browns. And it’s puzzling why he stood by and let offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner turn this from a power running team early in the season into a glorified West Coast offense that bloated Roethlisberger’s numbers down the stretch. A likely reason for that is the stress that Roesthlisberger’s arm could take — with the quicker, shorter passing game taking some of the torque off his elbow, while also preserving the number of hits he was going to be subjected to. If that’s the case, then it speaks to what is facing the Steelers. Does this become a higher-volume, shorter-passing team like the New Orleans Saints with Brees? Or does it look for a remedy that leans back into the violent, power running identity that has defined the franchise for the past decade?

Of course, it’s possible that nobody understands all of this more than Roethlisberger. Nobody knows better than he does where he’s at in terms of his throwing ability and overall health. That might be why he didn’t dive on that snap that went over his head on the first play from scrimmage, when it appeared he had a chance to get on top of the ball at the goal line. Or why he sat on the bench after the loss, lingering with tears in his eyes in a scene that suggested he had might have had something bigger on his mind than a disappointing first-round loss.

The scene was one that said “he’s done.” Maybe that’s what unfolds in the coming days. But there was a time when Brees also thought he was done after last season’s early playoff exit, and he ultimately returned for 2020. Maybe Roethlisberger makes that same last-gasp run, too, one that puts the team into a position of having to make a business decision about his money. Salary would indeed be an issue considering this isn’t the same situation that Brees returned to with the Saints. There is no Alvin Kamara in the backfield. No receiver on the roster is as talented as Michael Thomas. And Fichtner isn’t the offensive mind of a Sean Payton, who is constantly working and adjusting his team’s scheme to deal with the shortfalls that we have been able to spot in Brees’ game.

No, Pittsburgh is in a different situation. Either the team leans into this identity change on offense that appears to be necessary to keep Roethlisberger a viable option for another season, or it looks outward for an answer. The franchise has been avoiding this decision for a few years now, failing to find the natural replacement to take the baton. And now it will pay for it, having to either stretch one more year and rework Roethlisberger’s contract, or sift through an ample class of available veterans. No young option exists on the roster, so no clear choice is presenting itself.

If Roethlisberger doesn’t make the difficult decision for Pittsburgh, then the Steelers have to do the hard thing and make it for themselves. The time has come, and it doesn’t belong to Big Ben anymore.

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