Ben Roethlisberger’s play during the Steelers’ shocking three-game losing streak after an 11-0 start to the 2020 NFL season isn’t just a December slump. It is confirmation that Pittsburgh will have a short stay in the AFC playoffs because of its quarterback’s limitations.
What’s scary about Roethlisberger reaching his lowest point in Monday night’s horrendous 27-17 loss at the Bengals (3-10-1) is the fact it didn’t surprise many. Big Ben’s small numbers (20-of-38 passing, 170 yards, one TD, one interception, 73.4 rating, 4.4 yards per attempt) came against what was the league’s No. 22 pass defense.
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Monday marked the fifth straight game in which Roethlisberger rated under 90.0, making him a subpar QB in relation to the rest of the league’s starters. Since ripping the Bengals for 333 yards and four TDs in Week 10, the limitations in downfield passing that have existed all season have caught up to him in the worst way, at the worst possible time.
This time against Cincinnati, Roethlisberger was nearly as bad as he was in the loss to Washington in Week 13, and he was actually worse in the loss to Buffalo in Week 14.
It’s not all on him. The running game had a better showing because of backup Benny Snell Jr., who was filling in for an injured, ineffective James Conner, but it hasn’t been reliable. There have been bad routes, drops and fumbles by Roethlisberger’s receivers, and Roethlisberger has admitted to disconnects with Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool.
The Steelers are stuck with a compressed passing game. The Bengals weren’t scared of being burned deep and so were aggressive in going after Roethlisberger. They forced him to be accurate on intermediate to deep shots. He wasn’t. With no legitimate running game, there’s no real ability to facilitate downfield throws via play-action.
Roethlisberger has done his best to get the ball out quickly to avoid hits. But it’s no secret the Steelers’ offense is all about short passing now. As talented as Johnson, Smith-Schuster and Claypool are, it’s hard to get open and make plays consistently when defenses can feel more comfortable squeezing them and smacking them around in tight coverage.
Through his first 13 games this season, Roethlisberger was averaging only 6.8 intended air yards per attempt, or average depth of target. That ranked 29th in the league. The big pass plays haven’t been there regularly, either; the Steelers went into Week 15 tied for 28th with just 18 completions going for 25 or more yards.
However it you break it down, from the eye test to the statistical evidence, Roethlisberger has been far more mediocre than the inflated MVP candidate he was around midseason.
The Steelers and Roethlisberger don’t have a get-well matchup in Week 16: They’ll be up against the 10-4 Colts and their strong zone defense. Then they need to play at the confident 10-4 Browns in Week 17. There’s a real possibility that this team, which was once pursuing a perfect season, will free-fall into a six-game losing streak, including a one-and-done in the AFC playoffs.
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The Colts, Browns, Ravens, Dolphins, Bills, Titans and Chiefs are all playing better than the Steelers at the moment. After their performance against the Bengals, it’s hard to trust them winning against any of those teams in any round. Roethlisberger won’t suddenly turn back the clock to his two Super Bowl-winning runs, when he was younger and less worn.
Roethlisberger has said he wants to come back for the 2021 season. The Steelers might be stuck paying the price for him being around until their eventual elimination this season, but they can’t afford to stick with him next year.
Roethlisberger will carry a ridiculous $41.25 million salary-cap figure in what would be his Age 39 season. The cap-strapped Steelers would need to restructure his deal to keep him, but it’s not worth doing, because it will produce a poor return on investment. The Steelers would need to eat $22.25 million in dead money if they trade or release Roethlisberger when the new league year starts. But they also would save $19 million toward the cap.
After choosing not to find and stash Roethlisberger’s true successor, the Steelers need to tap into a strong QB class in the 2021 draft and roll with that rookie first-rounder like they did with Roethlisberger 16 years ago.
The AFC is all about young guns at the most important position right now. The Steelers took their best shot with Roethlisberger, knowing his leadership alone could help win a lot of games given the strength of their defense. But in the end, his passing was bound to be a liability. The Steelers’ struggles cannot be separated from Roethlisberger’s breakdown. That relationship should put Pittsburgh on the path to a tough breakup with him.