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How the Pittsburgh Steelers got it wrong with Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger
Jamie Germano via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Pittsburgh Steelers got it wrong. The decision to bring back quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is already proving costly in 2021, but the first domino fell years before and the organization is now dealing with the fallout after years of ignoring the warning signs.

It’s not supposed to be easy to move on from a future Hall of Fame quarterback who means so much to a storied NFL franchise. But as the Steelers watch a talented defense wasted thanks to an offense led by a quarterback who can no longer play the position adequately, blame must fall squarely on the organization.

This isn’t about a singular move. Instead, Pittsburgh sold itself on a fallacy based entirely on emotion and an inability to recognize what everyone saw coming. The team is paying the price for decisions made by a front office that couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

Click here for Sportsnaut’s Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 season projection

Steelers went all in on aging, hurt quarterback

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sep 26, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger warms-up before playing the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

At his peak, Roethlisberger was one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. From 2007-2018, the 6-foot-7 gunslinger bounced off hits from 300-pound linemen to help make the Steelers one of the best teams in football.

He won two Super Bowl, earned seven Pro Bowl selections and led the NFL in passing yards (twice). Coming off that 2018 season, setting career-highs with 5,129 passing yards and posting a 34-16 TD-INT ratio, all seemed perfect in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers rewarded Roethlisberger with a two-year, $68 million extension. There was plenty of reason to believe that he could play at a fairly high level through the 2021 season. But everything changed in Week 2. He suffered a season-ending elbow injury, which required surgery for a “total reconstruction” for his throwing elbow.

He started throwing to teammates again in May 2020, receivers raved about his velocity and the Steelers were very confident Roethlisberger would return to full strength. So, the front office didn’t draft a quarterback in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Ben Roethlisberger stats paint an ugly picture

Everything seemed to be going as planned early during the 2020 season. Off to a 9-0 start, Roethlisberger posted a 103.0 passer rating with 2,267 passing yards and a 22-4 TD-INT ratio. But he suffered a knee injury in Week 9 and his final six games showed a different version of the 38-year-old quarterback.

It led to an ugly end for a team that looked like a Super Bowl contender. But beyond the standard numbers, there were more troubling signs of decline.

In 2018, per Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger finished with the ninth-highest rate of 20-plus yard throws (12.9%), the ninth-best average depth of target (29.7) and finished sixth in passer rating (112.9) on deep throws.

From Week 10-16 last season, Roethlisberger posted the eighth-highest rate of deep throws (12.8%). But, his passer rating (82) plummeted and he posted the second-worst completion rate (29.3).

The Steelers seemingly viewed this as a fluke, agreeing to bring Roethlisberger back for the 2021 season. While most who watched the NFL saw a quarterback in clear decline entering his age-39 season, Pittsburgh still thought it had something.

Things are off to a brutal start. Roethlisberger now has the second-worst passer rating (34.1) on deep throws and the worst completion rate (23.1%). Even more troubling, he seemingly knows his arm is shot. Roethlisberger now throws 20.8% of his pass attempts behind the line of scrimmage and 46.2% within nine yards. On short throws, Roethlisberger has the third-lowest completion rate (70%) and passer rating (79.0).

Even more alarming, especially with the state of the Steelers’ offensive line, Roethlisberger has the worst passer rating (20.1) when pressured.

Pittsburgh failed to plan for the inevitable

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers should have seen this coming, even outside observers knew what was happening before the 2021 season. But as league sources told CBS Sports Jonathan Jones, Pittsburgh’s emotion got in the way of doing the right thing.

“They have never moved on from their players at the right time and their contingency plan isn’t the answer.”

Anonymous NFL source to CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones

As another source told Jones, the Steelers still believed Roethlisberger could still play and were very comfortable with the level of power he had. But all of this doesn’t just fall on a quarterback who should be retired.

The offensive line was one of the Steelers’ most glaring needs this offseason. Instead of drafting an offensive tackle with its first-round pick, Pittsburgh selected running back Najee Harris. The front office didn’t even address the offensive line until the third round. As for finding Roethlisberger’s successor, Pittsburgh added draft bust Dwayne Haskins.

Fast forward to October and this offense is exactly where everyone expected them to be. Underwhelming additions along the offensive line haven’t brought improvements to the running game and the only thing saving Roethlisberger from more sacks is an offense that keeps throwing behind the line of scrimmage.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers offensive state (2021): 53 rush yards per game (32nd), 50 points scored (28th),
  • 28.1% scoring rate (27th), 54 first downs (26th) and 6.2 yards per pass attempt (25th)

All of this could have been avoided. When Roethlisberger’s elbow was totally reconstructed, the Steelers needed to rebuild the offensive line and dedicated significant draft capital to finding his successor.

Instead, the franchise sold itself a fallacy that Ben Roethlisberger would return better than ever and his physical skills would somehow survive an elbow surgery and thousands of hits during his career. The Steelers followed their heart instead of logic and it could set this franchise back for years to come.