Pittsburgh Steelers president gives Ben Roethlisberger contract ultimatum

Dec 21, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) drops to throw during the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wants to return for the 2021 NFL season, he’ll need to restructure his contract so the team can have more salary cap flexibility as it builds out the roster around him.

In order for the front office to go to work and accomplish that task on an ideal timeline, Steelers president Art Rooney II has given Big Ben a specific time by which he needs to rework his deal.

Read More: NFL salary cap tracker: Where each team stands in 2021

Ben Roethlisberger must restructure contract by March 17 to play in Pittsburgh

Bob Labriola of the Steelers’ official website reported what Rooney had to say regarding Roethlisberger’s outlook for 2021, setting an ultimatum of the first day of the new league year for him to get the contract finalized:

“We have been clear that we would like him back but we needed to do something with the contract. We’re getting to that point now where the time is right. We have a better idea of where the salary cap is going to be, which is an important component of the decision. […] Hopefully we’ll work something out before that, but certainly if you want to say there’s a hard deadline, March 17 would be it.”

Steelers president Art Rooney II on Ben Roethlisberger’s contract situation

Pittsburgh would be taking on a cap hit of over $41 million in the final year of Roethlisberger’s contract if he doesn’t rework it or just simply take a pay cut of some kind. It’s a prohibitive cost even for a future Hall of Famer who began last season leading the team to 11 straight wins.

But Big Ben’s decline down the stretch of 2020, capped by a one-and-done effort in the playoffs against the Cleveland Browns, combined with zero postseason victories in the past four years paint a bleak outlook for his immediate future.

Related: NFL defense rankings – Packers return to elite status, Rams in trouble

Can Ben Roethlisberger keep Steelers atop AFC North in 2021?

Buffalo Bills schedule, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) passes against the Cleveland Browns during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Browns won 48-37. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the Browns and Baltimore Ravens also made the playoffs from the division last year, and the Cincinnati Bengals have Joe Burrow at quarterback and more cap space than anyone else in the AFC North, it’s going to take a really high level of play from Roethlisberger and continued elite form by the defense for Pittsburgh to repeat as champions.

What the Steelers could do to help out Roethlisberger is improved their dead-last rushing attack from a season ago. Whether that means drafting a game-changing tailback in Round 1 or bolstering the offensive line, any help on that front would be a welcome development.

Also hurting Pittsburgh’s cause on offense: Top receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva are free agents. Stud center Maurkice Pouncey is retiring. Tight end Eric Ebron could be a cap casualty since he’d save the Steelers $6 million.

Related: Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner

It’s really not looking great for Roethlisberger, who’s almost immobile at this point in his career and is turning 39 in March. He hasn’t kept himself in great condition over the years, and has taken a ton of hits due to his knack for creating plays off-schedule by holding onto the ball longer than most of his QB peers.

The Steelers do have a trio of young, promising wideouts returning in Chase Claypool, James Washington and Diontae Johnson, so it’s not like Roethlisberger is entirely without weapons. If the defense can maintain the form that helped Pittsburgh start 11-0 in 2020, that’ll help the cause too of course.

All that said, a real case can be made that Pittsburgh now has the worst quarterback in its division. That’s rare territory the team hasn’t occupied really since Roethlisberger took over as the starter.

Read More: Pittsburgh Steelers draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target