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Rebuilding Steel: A Comprehensive Look At Life After Big Ben

After 18 seasons Big Ben is hanging up his cleats. And for the first time in 18 seasons the Steelers are in the market for a Quarterback.

pittsburgh steelers vs tenn. titians 9-13 by Paula R. Lively is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rebuilding Steel: A Comprehensive Look At Life After Big Ben


Estimated Reading Time: 12 Minutes

The 2022 offseason will present many avenues for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most of which will take them through waters uncharted for the last 18 seasons. First, a new starting Quarterback will lead the Steelers in 2022 after 18 year veteran and sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer Ben Roethlisberger made his retirement announcement official. The big question is, do the Steelers take this opportunity for a full rebuild? And if a complete tear down isn’t in keeping with the “Steelers way”. How can they rebuild while maintaining their competitiveness? Luckily for our readers, I have what no other writer, or Steeler fan has….an opinion!

To Tear Down or Not Tear Down, that is the Question?

NO, they won’t! It’s just not the Steelers MO.
Not when they have probable DPOY of the Year TJ Watt under a long term contract. Aside from Brady, TJ Watt is the 2nd best player in the NFL.

One more time for the cheap seats.

TJ WATT IS THE SECOND BEST PLAYER IN THE NFL! And I will die on that hill

https://twitter.com/FTB_Vids_YT/status/1480259472987615233

And while the defense wasn’t as good as anticipated this season, there were a few circumstances that contributed.

#1, was a Steelers’ offense that couldn’t sustain many long drives, let alone control time of possession for a full 60 seconds. This left the defense to play a lot of football.

#2, the Steelers allowed the most rushing yards of any defense this season. Which is hard to believe when you look at the personnel on this defense. But, the key to understanding the rushing woes is to look at who wasn’t there this season. Defensive stalwart DE Stephon Tuitt didn’t play a down this year, and fellow DE Tyson Alualu fractured his ankle early in Week 2. That’s two out of three starters on a 3-4 defense. That’s going to be felt, and it was in the run game this year.

Getting those guys back, the positive late season play from Rookie cornerback Tre Norwood. Watt, Highsmith, Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and if you can bring back one or both of Joe Haden or Ahkello Witherspoon at cornerback, then this D alone will allow the Steelers to compete in 2022.

Mike Tomlin still does not know what a losing season is

With possibly the worst offense in 20 years, the Steelers finished the regular season 9-7-1 and made the playoffs. And if that isn’t reason enough not to undergo a complete rebuild, I don’t know what is. Mike Tomlin just doesn’t have losing seasons. And I was a long time Mike Tomlin defender, then I was a “Fire Tomlin” guy for not being able to win with Ben, Bell and Brown, the so-called Killers B’s. But, after two of those guys went crazy and torpedoed their careers out of nowhere, Tomlin still never had a losing season. He’s a saint with a job for life as far as I’m concerned.

Pittsburgh Steelers Football GIF by NFL - Find & Share on GIPHY

I mean, think about that for a second. One year you lose the best running back in the league, and the next year you lose the best wide receiver in the league. Both torpedoing their careers in their prime. Le’von Bell, because apparently being the highest paid running back in league history wasn’t good enough for him. And Antonio Brown, who just went batshit crazy out of nowhere. I don’t think a situation like that will ever happen again in sports. But I digress.

Refocusing on this season, the Steelers had an aging quarterback, probably one of the worst offensive lines I’ve seen in the modern NFL, a first year OC who shouldn’t have been and should be promptly removed from the position. And an overall offense that couldn’t move the ball downfield or sustain long drives. And still, they beat, Baltimore and Cleveland twice, and AFC #1 seed Tennessee Titans. That is all Tomlin.

Ben would have retired after the 2019 season

We may never know if that is in fact what would have happened. But I think that 2019 would have been Big Ben’s last season if he didn’t get injured. A HOF career can’t end on an injury if it can be helped. But what that injury did was leave the Steelers in a state a limbo for the next two seasons. A 38-year-old QB, with less mobility and now less arm strength than before, was probably not going to win them a Super Bowl. Yes his release was quicker now, but he lacked that big play ability.

Finally, Where do the Steelers go from here?

Now that we’ve covered what we have, let’s see what is missing. With what should be a top defense still in 2022 the question of the offseason will what can be done to turn the page and start a new chapter on offense for the Steelers at the Quarterback position. I know the offensive line needs serious work, and we’ll get to that. But first, you need to address the Quarterback situation moving forward. And that will need to come with a first or second round pick in 2022 or 2023. Let’s break down cases for both years.

2022: The Steelers decide to address the future at the Quarterback position

This has been called a “weak” quarterback class, but there are a few options I like for the Steelers here. It remains to be seen if any of these options would fall to the Steelers who hold the #20 pick or if they could be reached via trade or who might even fall to the second round.

Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh
The Pitt QB has seen his stock rise aplenty after his breakout senior season at Pitt. 4,308 yards, 42 TDs, 7 INTS, led Pitt to an ACC Championship. He is probably my top choice out of all the draft options in 2022 or 2023. At 6’3″, 220lbs he has a clean pocket presence and can move if he needs to. He is the most like Big Ben of any QB in this draft, and he is the most Steeler like QB in either draft. If the Steelers aren’t looking to stray too much from how the position has looked the last 18 seasons, then Pickett has to be on their radar, and they should have the resources to trade up to grab him if they need.

Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Based on Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference, it would seem that he may be searching for more mobility with his new quarterback. Now that could mean your quick, more run option QB types. Not unlike a Lamar Jackson. Or that could be a big guy, with an arm who can move. Enter Desmond Ridder, who stands at 6’3″ 215lbs. He may well fit into the Steelers future. For a team that has always prided themselves in the ability to run the ball down opposing defenses throats, and a tall, quick QB like Riddler may be a nice addition to a team that also has Najee Harris at running back. A better Oline would make the tandem of Riddler and Harris a dual threat in the backfield

Malik Willis, Liberty
I have admittedly not watched a lot of Liberty games in 2021, or ever, but from what I’ve read and seen on highlights Malik Willis will be most suited for an RPO QB run heavy offense. Willis looks like a great prospect if that is the direction the Steelers want to take their offense. Keep in mind this would be a new look for the Steelers, perhaps this is a style more suited to Matt Canadas play calling abilities. If it works, I have no reason not to trust the Steelers judgement, but it would be a shift from any type of Steelers offense we’ve seen in the past.

Other Options:
Matt Corral, Ole Miss – One of the top prospects, would fit best in an RPO style offense. He is most people’s QB 1

Sam Howell, North Carolina – Once projected to be at the top of this class. However, I don’t think his stock fell this year so much as others rose higher. Should be available in the 2nd round.

Carson Strong, Nevada –
I am back and forth on him, he could go boom or bust.

2023: The Steelers decide to address the future at the Quarterback position

In this scenario, the Steelers decide to wait on a QB and see what they have with Mason Rudolph. It won’t be pretty, but with Mike Tomlin’s aforementioned track record of non-losing seasons coupled with this defense, we have to assume the Steelers will, at best, still be drafting in the mid round range. Pick 12-20. That takes the top 2 QBs in this class out of contention. Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio States CJ Stroud. As for the other top names, we will have to see what 2023 brings but some names to watch would be.

Spencer Rattler, South Carolina – Like Howell, Rattler looked to be the top of the 2022 class before being benched in Oklahoma. Will a transfer help the young signal caller?

Jake Haener, Fresno State

Phil Jurkovec, Boston College

Will Levis, Kentucky

Jaren Hall, QB, BYU

It is worth noting that whether a QB is drafted in 2022 or 2023, he will not be competing for a starting job right out the gate. That is just not how the Steelers operate. Ben Roethlisberger began his rookie campaign 3rd on the depth and only got the nod in Week 2 because starter Tommy Maddox got injured mid-game and back up Charlie Batch was out with a knee injury. Ben was drafted to be what he became, but nevertheless we have to expect that any drafted rookie sits and learns the offense for a year, baring injury or sheer ineptitude to the starter.

Which means, if they don’t draft a QB until 2023, we don’t realistically see him start until 2024. With the mid first rounders in 2023, on paper, similar to what would we can expect to be available to the Steelers in 2022. It makes sense to address the need sooner rather than later. Allow Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins to battle it out for the starting job, and have a prospect waiting in the wings earlier.

There is also the option of the Steelers bringing in a bridge quarterback to compete with Mason and Haskins. Which would ultimately send one of them to the practice squad or unemployment line. Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, or please God, Ryan Fitzpatrick are all available free agents.

But what about the offensive line? We need to improve the offensive line!

Believe me, I hear you Steeler Nation. And I haven’t forgotten the Oline. But there are a couple of reasons I favor prioritizing quarterback over Oline. The first being that a skill position like quarterback is much, much harder to come by via the draft. Good Oline can be found in all rounds in the draft, including the first or second round in ’22, depending on where you draft the QB.

The second reason is that the Oline can be upgraded via free agency or trades easier than a quarterback. The future franchise quarterback most likely isn’t in the NFL right now, if he is, then its Mason Rudolph. But if you believe Mason isn’t that, then you have to draft. You’re going to need more than one lineman anyway. You are going to have a dump truck of extra cash on hand when Ben’s contract comes off the book. Furthermore, the Steelers could sign two, trade a late round pick for one, grab one earlier in the draft still and take a flier on a late round Oline prospect. The options to improve the offensive line are numerous.

Final Thoughts on this Next Chapter

Big Ben has been our QB for 18 years. That’s a long time. When I heard his named called in the 2004 NFL draft, I was scrubbing dishes at a pizza shop in my hometown. Now I have a wife, 2 kids, a career and a house. What’s more, we’ve only known success with Ben. Not only did he help deliver the first Super Bowl a lot of us were alive to see. He never had a losing season. Think about that! The last sub .500 season was 2003, a 6-10 record that gave us Ben Roethlisberger in draft the following year.

I’d like to see the Steelers be aggressive in pursuing his replacement. If you think Pickett or Corral is the guy, go after him. If you like Ridder or Willis and you think they fit, and can wait on them, fine! Upgrade the Oline for sure. And don’t just think that because Mason Rudolph has been on the team for 4 years that he is the guy just because he “knows the system”. Give him his shot, sure. But don’t just sit on other options that maybe available.

The offseason holds so many possibilities. As one chapter ends, another is set to begin. Time for the Steelers to get to work!

Christian is husband, father and video editor working in New York City. Originally from the Greater Pittsburgh Area he is a life long fan The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates as well as Professional Wrestling.

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