The only thing more painful than moving on from a franchise quarterback too quickly is holding on to one too long.
Three weeks into the season, it has become painfully clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers miscalculated in bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for one final ride. The future Hall of Famer is well and truly cooked. And now the Steelers, who are 1-2 after losing to the Bengals on Sunday, are staring down the prospect of finishing last in their division for the first time since 1988.
If you want to find a microcosm for all that is wrong with Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, you needn’t look far. Take the fourth-and-10 call that ended any chance of a Steelers win on Sunday. Down 14 points, with the ball in the redzone, Pittsburgh had one final shot to get back into the game:
On first viewing, it’s baffling. Funny, even. Did Ben Roethlisberger really just throw a swing pass behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-10? On the second, fourth and 10th viewing it becomes sad.
There was no separation down the field. Roethlisberger’s protection didn’t hold up. The 39-year-old’s inability to move outside the pocket or dance within it forced him to get the ball out to the first player he could find. That player, Najee Harris, the team’s most recent first-round pick, was swallowed up by five Cincinnati tacklers.
It is not particularly hard to figure out the issues with the Steelers: bottom-tier offensive coaching, bottom-tier quarterback play, and questionable roster construction.
Even their defense, flush with talent, was beaten up by a so-so Bengals side on Sunday. With TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith out through injury, Pittsburgh finished with zero sacks and zero quarterback hits; the team’s 5.6% pressure rate was the lowest rate the team have had since the league began tracking the stat. It was an ugly all-around performance.
But it’s the offense, and Roethlisberger, where the main issues lie.
Roethlisberger is a dinosaur fighting extinction, a rhythmic, move-the-chains passer in a league that now demands an explosive, down-the-field passing game. The rumbling, tumbling, Big Ben of old has been missing for the better part of five years. Now, he’s a hit-the-back-foot, get-the-ball-out sort of player, void of the artistry that elevated him from a good player into a Hall of Famer.
The Steelers elevated Matt Canada from quarterbacks’ coach to offensive coordinator this offseason in a bid to give Roethlisberger a schematic fountain of youth. The whole conceit of the Canada offense is to use pre-snap disguises – motions and shifts – to confuse the defense. Confuse and clobber, they call it. It’s all about non-stop movement: you think the ball is here then – surprise – it’s over there.
The only real surprise so far is that the Steelers thought that such a system – one that struggled at the highest levels of the college game – would work on a field full of professionals, and that they believed such a gimmick-based approach could cover up for Roethlisberger’s dwindling effectiveness and a lack of talent along the team’s offensive line.
Against the Bengals, Roethlisberger completed 38 of 58 passes, throwing one touchdown to two interceptions. He averaged a triple-take worthy 5.5 yards per completion, with 32 of his 38 completions coming within 10 yards. That’s the kind of total that would usually see a quarterback sent to the bench.
But the Steelers don’t have any other options. They chose to ride with Roethlisberger for one more season rather than jump into last offseason’s game of Quarterback Musical Chairs. They passed on opportunities to draft a successor. They didn’t get involved in conversations for Matthew Stafford. Even when the Jaguars made Gardner Minshew available for the paltry price of a sixth-round pick, the Steelers opted to sit out.
Standing pat can be the riskiest course. The point of hanging onto Roethlisberger was that while his physical gifts would continue to wane, his veteran savvy might guide the Steelers through games – his knowledge of coverages, his managing of the game. And that Canada’s new offense would leverage confusion into easy completions and yards.
It hasn’t worked. The offense has looked stilted, Roethlisberger a sad shadow of his former self – sapped of the ability to push the ball down the field, stumbling over his own feet, indecision seeping through the screen.
With no future to turn to, the Steelers face a long 14 weeks.