By: Michael Stiffler, @Stiffeezy_ on Twitter
The 2020 season has left the Pittsburgh Steelers with more questions than answers heading into the offseason. This was supposed to be the year they could put it all together, everyone knew that. Even before all the outside circumstances put their footprint in the NFL this was supposed to be one last ride with this group. Everyone bought into the idea that with this team returning franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had the ability to challenge the top tier teams of the NFL for a Super Bowl trophy. Instead the Steelers are left licking their wounds and taking a long look in the mirror of how they are going to respond to the ass beating the Cleveland Browns put on them in their Wild Card matchup.
No matter what the Steelers were going to have salary cap decisions heading into free agency with players like Bud Dupree (who was playing on a big dollar franchise tag), Juju Smith-Schuster (who has amassed over 300 catches in the black and gold in his 4 years here expecting a big payday), and James Conner (the hometown kid who plays a position that wants to be paid, but everyone feels is easily replaceable). There was never an avenue where all these players would take the field together again given their financial situation. Add COVID-19 into the mix causing the projected NFL salary cap to remain unchanged, and the Steelers are projected to be over the salary cap by $20 million PRIOR to free agency. This makes free agency decisions on players like Alejandro Villanueva, Avery Williamson, Mike Hilton, Tyson Alualu, Zach Banner, Matt Feiler, Robert Spillane, and Cam Sutton that much harder to navigate. Yes there are scenarios where they can extend veteran players like Steven Nelson, David DeCastro, and others to help alleviate their current dilemma, but it poses the question, should the Steelers continue pushing cap hits to future dates on players who may not even be on the roster?
What about retirement? Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey’s demeanor after the 37-48 defeat to the Browns was indicative of someone who has played their last snap. Both players were visibly emotional when the clock hit 0:00, even teammates came over periodically speaking to both in what seemed like a farewell. Pouncey has always said he and Roethlisberger would go at the same time but will they want to end their careers with that performance? Pouncey had noticeable mistakes snapping the ball over Roethlisberger’s head spotting the Browns an early 7-0 lead and on a short yardage situation where they ran a predictable FB dive up the gut getting blown back into Derek Watt. To simply put it, Pouncey is no longer the All-Pro center Steelers fans are accustomed to, but rather an average player. Roethlisberger when speaking of retirement has always advocated that when his play starts to decrease, it will be time to hang it up. Head coach Mike Tomlin in his post game press conference stated he believes Roethlisberger can still play at a high level, but do stats indicate otherwise?
Over the first 11 games of the season, Roethlisberger was great at protecting the football, posting 25 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Over the last 5 games he played in (which resulted in a 1-4 record), those numbers diminished throwing 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, granted not all were his fault. While his play can be debated, his health still seems to be a lingering issue. The surgically repaired elbow never seemed to be an issue this season outside of some grimacing that sent Steelers fans into a panic. The big issue at hand with Roethlisberger is his mobility. In Week 13 after their matchup with the Washington Football Team, there were reports about a hyperextended knee, which later was clarified by Ian Rapaport as routine maintenance for arthritic knees. This is a big concern for a team that has huge question marks on the offensive line this offseason between players leaving via free agency and their lack of ability to run the ball. In a game where mobility is the new weapon for an offense, Roethlisberger is seemingly left fossilizing as an outdated pocket quarterback. Roethlisberger and Pouncey aren’t the only individuals in question, however. DeCastro had his own injury concerns that diminished his level of play this season. DeCastro also stated he wasn’t having fun this season, so at the age of 31 does he call it quits? Again more questions than answers.
Finally, there is no doubt that coaching should be called into question starting with offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner. No secret here but everyone from fans to analysts are a big advocate that he should be removed from his play calling duties. The Steelers brought in quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to add his flavor to the offense, which was very noticeable compared to Fichtner’s stagnant offensive nature, but those influences seemed to dwindle as the season progressed. Then there was the first game against the Baltimore Ravens where it became apparent Roethlisberger was handling quite a bit of play calling in a 2-minute offense that was executed for a whole half. From there, the Steelers were two completely different offenses, Fichtner’s and Roethlisberger’s where the latter was clearly more successful. Fichtner isn’t the only one to blame, what about Keith Butler? I have never been a fan of Butler’s defense since he took over but the talent level on defense was too great to fail. The Steelers had SEVEN 1st round picks listed as starters to start the season. While that number dwindled because Devin Bush and Dupree had season ending injuries, they still possessed the talent to succeed and lead the NFL in multiple categories. The issue with Butler is schematics and it is the same thing year after year. In 2018 Steelers fans screamed as a linebacker was covering Keenan Allen, which ultimately led to the drafting of Bush in 2019. Fast forward to last night’s Wild Card matchup and Spillane was tasked with covering Jarvis Landry in the slot, a task most defensive backs struggle with, let alone middle linebackers. It is the receptiveness of Bulter’s schematics that continue to drive fans mad and changes need to be made. At last we get to Tomlin, a change that won’t occur until he is ready to call it. While I don’t think blame needs placed all on him, you have to question the leader of this team. 2020’s season end where the Steelers lost 5 of their last 6 isn’t just a one time occurrence. Rewind to 2018, the Steelers were 7-2-1 heading into week 12 challenging for the top spot in the AFC. Instead of continued success the Steelers closed the season losing 4 of 6 and missing out on the playoffs. So why does this trend continue to happen under Tomlin? The playoff struggles continue to be baffling specifically last night and 2017’s divisional game versus the Jacksonville Jaguars. They both were the same story of get yourself in a big hole early, then rely on Roethlisberger to gun his way to a comeback. Whether it is the game planning or players coming in with a sense of entitlement, their preparation to playoff games needs to be elevated starting with the head coach.
The solution to the problem isn’t as simple as blow it up. There are a lot of variables at play that Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert will have to navigate this offseason. I don’t have all the answers but you can expect the 2021 Steelers will have a significantly different look than 2020. Until then all we can do is wait.