The Pittsburgh Steelers are stumbling down the stretch after an incredible 11-0 start to the 2020 season, and the play of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is declining.
In four December starts, he logged a 1-3 record, threw six touchdowns to five interceptions, and averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt to post a 74.4 passer rating.
Who should succeed Big Ben when the 38-year-old’s career inevitably comes to a conclusion soon? With a championship-caliber defense and the chance to upgrade under center, the Steelers ought to capitalize on their Super Bowl window in 2021 by finding Roethlisberger’s successor.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback: Who can replace Big Ben?
There’s still a chance Pittsburgh could hoist the Lombardi Trophy, marking Roethlisberger’s third championship with the franchise. From there, he may decide to hang up the cleats, which would make for a happy ending for all involved. However, if the Steelers’ struggles persist and result in postseason disappointment, Roethlisberger may want to finish out his contract with one final year.
Roethlisberger has thrown 29 touchdowns to nine interceptions this season, but his 6.3 yards per attempt is 31st out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks. Furthermore, he’s coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder and doesn’t possess the same throwing power he once did. In three December starts, Big Ben’s passer rating is down to 77.7.
Often in the NFL, it’s better to move off a player too early rather than too late. With that premise in mind, let’s look at some sensible players who could succeed Roethlisberger, and provide a refreshing spark to Pittsburgh’s offense and quarterback situation.
Dak Prescott signs with Steelers in free agency
The Dallas Cowboys haven’t done right by Prescott. They failed to agree to terms on multi-year contract prior to the 2020 campaign, only to see Prescott go down with a season-ending injury that’s made for a disastrous maiden year under head coach Mike McCarthy.
Prescott would be fully embraced by the Pittsburgh faithful. He’s a gritty competitor with high-end talent, and is accustomed to having a loaded receiving corps around him. That’s precisely what the Steelers have. Even if they don’t sign free agent to-be JuJu Smith-Schuster, rookie Chase Claypool has made an instant impact, James Washington continues to flash nicely and Diontae Johnson — a recent spell of drops notwithstanding — is usually a sure-handed possession target.
An exciting aspect Prescott brings to the gridiron is his rushing ability. Another reason the Steelers have struggled of late is their inability to pound the rock. Some of that is on the insufficient backfield, and some is on the line. Whatever the issue is, the fact that Prescott can make plays with his feet at any given time keeps the defense more on their heels when guarding against the run.
Not only should Prescott’s mobility help free up higher-quality play-action looks, but it’ll also allow Pittsburgh’s overall play design to become more creative.
Matthew Stafford traded from Lions to Steelers
If ever any quarterback deserved to go from a flailing football operation to one of the NFL’s premier franchises, it’s Stafford. He’s paid plenty of dues in Detroit, endured multiple head coaches and hasn’t had a competent rushing attack nor a consistent defense to complement his elite talent.
Because the Lions are playing from behind so often, evaluating Stafford is a challenging exercise. Is he forcing too many throws at times? Is he taking more desperation deep shots to create splash plays, thus driving down his completion percentage?
Stafford is built to overcome an underwhelming rushing attack, which as mentioned, Pittsburgh currently has. One difference between the Steelers and the Lions — there are many — is the organization that actually wins on a regular basis will address weaknesses, whereas Detroit has failed to do that during Stafford’s entire tenure.
Figuring out a way to move off Roethlisberger and landing a younger, more dynamic passer in Stafford would be among the splashiest moves of the NFL offseason should Pittsburgh pull it off. It’d also make the Steelers the clear candidate to challenge Kansas City for AFC supremacy.
Carson Wentz finds new life as Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback
Think about what Wentz has had to work with in Philadelphia. A vanilla offensive scheme ever since Frank Reich left to coach the Indianapolis Colts. Tons of injuries in each of the past two seasons, which have not only diminished the playmakers at Wentz’s disposal, but also hindered his pass protection in a big way.
What once worked for the former NFL MVP candidate is now failing him. His tendencies to hold the ball too long are compounded by his receivers routinely failing to get separation, not to mention the men in the trenches who can’t hold up against pass rushes.
The offense Pittsburgh is running in 2020 is designed for the quarterback to get the ball out fast so that the receivers can make plays in space. At no point in Wentz’s career has he had a receiving corps anywhere close to what the Steelers currently boast.
Wentz is a more mobile version of Roethlisberger, with superior arm strength as of today. Pittsburgh is the perfect place for the embattled Eagles signal-caller to rebuild his confidence and revitalize his career.
From a cap standpoint, this is admittedly hard for both teams to pull off. Whereas Prescott’s contract can be backloaded to help the cause and Stafford’s price tag isn’t as prohibitive, Wentz is locked in to his current contract much more. All that being accounted for, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Mac Jones to Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021 NFL Draft
Realistically, the top two quarterback prospects in Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields won’t be available to Pittsburgh, nor will dual-threat dynamos in Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. Even Florida product Kyle Trask may be out of reach.
Next, though? Jones. This option offers an element of the unknown, yet it’s also easily the most cost-effective choice. No salary cap gymnastics. Just a breakout star from the University of Alabama.
Jones is putting on an absolute show this season for the Crimson Tide. He’s completing 76.4% of his passes as of this writing with 11.7 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns and only three picks.
Consider, too, that these aren’t often dink-and-dunk throws. No, Jones averaging 13.1 air yards per attempt in 2020. In stark contrast, Roethlisberger is at 6.7 AY/A.
Will the rising college star bomb it downfield as often as he does at Alabama in the pros? Of course not. However, Jones has proven proficient in throwing to all areas of the field despite lacking an elite arm. Graded as a late first-round pick by most draft experts, don’t be surprised if Jones falls right into the Steelers’ lap — or if minimal draft-day maneuvering will be enough to land him.