Ben Roethlisberger took a knee to end the season and, most likely, his career at Heinz Field Monday night. Tears in his eyes, he thanked the Pittsburgh faithful for their decades of support. The next time he’s in Heinz Field for a Steelers game, he’ll likely be waving to the crowd from a suite, or on the field pregame wearing a blazer. What will the Steelers look like then?
The Pittsburgh Steelers have some huge choices to make in the wake of Roethlisberger’s impending departure, choices that go far beyond deciding who’s taking snaps eight months from now. They can look east for a blueprint for what to do, and also what not to do, when a multiple Super Bowl-winning quarterback leaves the only team for which he’s ever played. Question is, will the Steelers follow the path of the New England Patriots or the New York Giants?
Pittsburgh’s about to get back on the dating scene after almost 20 years of marriage. That can go very well, recognizing that a little bit of honest self-analysis and patience are necessary, or that can go very poorly, with hasty and unwise choices that set you back years. Again: see the Patriots and the Giants.
The Steelers have needs all over the field, but everything flows outward from the quarterback, and the route that Pittsburgh management opts to take. Where the Giants quickly deemed in-house rookie Daniel Jones the heir apparent to Eli Manning, the Patriots showed a bit more discipline, wading through a year of Cam Newton/Jarrett Stidham/Brian Hoyer before drafting Mac Jones. Two years later, it’s fairly obvious which approach worked better.
Backups Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins are already in Pittsburgh uniforms, but the fact that they haven’t seen much playing time even despite Roethlisberger’s struggles speaks volumes about their long-term futures. Rudolph has only appeared in two games, and Haskins hasn’t taken a single snap all year.
If Pittsburgh opts to go with a veteran at QB, there are tantalizing — well, interesting, at least — options beyond just Rudolph and Haskins. Mitchell Trubisky, Marcus Mariota and Tyrod Taylor are among the quarterbacks currently holding clipboards or recovering from injury who will be free agents at the end of the year. Could one of them step into Roethlisberger’s shoes?
The draft is relatively meager for quarterbacks, at least compared to the 2021 bounty, but one name would make for a perfect narrative fit: Pitt’s Kenny Pickett, who became a local folk hero before opting out of the Peach Bowl to focus on the draft. Another possibility: North Carolina’s Sam Howell. Will either last until the Steelers' pick? Yet to be determined.
Pittsburgh has concerns beyond just who’s throwing passes. Roethlisberger doesn’t play defense, and the defense is cracking. Pass rusher T.J. Watt and defensive tackle Cam Heyward earned Pro Bowl trips, but all too often they’ve been like parked cars in an empty parking lot — obstacles other teams can simply drive around.
The Steelers rank 31st, ahead of only the Texans, in rushing defense, surrendering 139.6 yards per game. Minkah Fitzpatrick ranks 17th in the league in tackles, which seems like a reasonably good sign except that Fitzpatrick is the highest-ranked non-linebacker on that list, indicating that Pittsburgh is giving up a whole lot of early-play yardage. Passing defense ranks far better, 12th overall, but the Steelers still give up 24.1 points a game, 22nd in the league and worst in the AFC North.
When there’s this much need across the board, even with the increased salary cap, the draft becomes a priority. The Steelers will be a team to watch in April, even though they’ll be picking somewhere in the middle of the pack. Yahoo Sports draft expert Eric Edholm points to the offensive line as the Steelers’ greatest area of need, all the more crucial given a new quarterback will be under center.
In the recent past, the Steelers have gone with a best-available approach — quarterback hasn’t been a pressing concern, obviously — and the results have been obvious: Key contributors Najee Harris, Chase Claypool and Watt are all recent top picks. That should give Steelers fans hope that management has the ability to suss out talent that can stick around for the long term.
Plus, although no one wants to write off an entire season, it’s worth noting that if Pittsburgh does, shall we say, fail to field a competitive team in 2022, the quarterback prospects for the 2023 draft look much brighter than 2022. Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, and several others who’ll post huge 2022 numbers … any one of those could be Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback in 2023.
Many choices await Pittsburgh, and none of them will be easy. Pittsburgh’s longstanding run without a losing record (the team hasn’t finished below .500 since 2003) might well be in jeopardy in 2022. But at least the team and its fans can take heart in this: A rapid rebuild isn’t just possible, it’s doable. Any approach that Bill Belichick endorses is worth a long look.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.