NFL

Pittsburgh Steelers: Success of Roethlisberger's likely swansong hinges on support system

By Sports Desk April 01, 2021

The times they are a-changin' in the AFC North, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to spend one more season led by a veteran quarterback ill-equipped to help them stem the tide.

Pittsburgh made no secret of a desire to move on from Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, but the best the Steelers could do was to restructure his contract, with his new deal voiding after 2021, making him a free agent and likely ending a glittering career next year.

But that means they will have to go into the new season with a 39-year-old signal-caller coming off one of the most inefficient seasons of his time in the league, in which the Steelers started 11-0 only to fade badly down the stretch and suffer a humiliating playoff loss to long-time AFC North whipping boys the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland and the Baltimore Ravens look well-placed to contend again, and the Steelers are in a position where the team around Roethlisberger must elevate him to levels that now appear beyond the two-time Super Bowl winner to ensure they can compete.

How should Pittsburgh go about achieving that goal? We attempt to find the answers by using Stats Perform data to analyse their 2020 campaign and their offseason moves so far.

Offense

Whenever he decides to bring his career to an end, Roethlisberger is a near-certainty to reach the Hall of Fame.

However, in 2020 he was at the helm of one of the least dynamic offenses in football, with Pittsburgh's struggles illustrated by a yards per play average of 5.13 that ranked a lowly 26th in the NFL.

The lack of a consistent downfield element to the passing game was a significant contributor to the Steelers' problems on offense.

Roethlisberger's yards per attempt average of 6.3 was the lowest of his career across seasons in which he has played double-digit games - it was 5.7 in his two appearances in 2019.

He had 43 pass plays that went for 20 yards or more, tied for 17th, though yards after catch was clearly a massive contributor to those plays. Pittsburgh ranked eighth with 50.4 per cent of the Steelers' gross passing yardage made up by yards after the catch.

His passer rating of 81.0 on throws of at least 21 air yards was 18th among quarterbacks with 25 such attempts and he completed only 30.2 per cent of those attempts (22nd of 28 QBs with a minimum of 25 attempts).

There were still bright spots on the passing offense even in a down year, the most prominent of which was rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool.

Claypool led all rookies with nine receiving touchdowns. Five of those were of a distance of at least 20 yards, with only Tyreek Hill (nine) and Nelson Agholor (six) recording more such touchdown receptions

Beyond Roethlisberger's issues pushing the ball downfield, the running game was a source of major frustration for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were last with a yards per carry average of 3.62, their 32 runs of 10 yards or more were also the fewest in the league and only three teams had fewer rushing touchdowns than their 12.

If the Steelers want to maximise Roethlisberger's hopes of a bounce-back year, they must give him more support from the ground game.

Defense

The Steelers succeeded despite the travails of their offense in large part because their defense was again one of the best in the league.

Pittsburgh finished the year with the third-best mark in terms of yards per play allowed, giving up an average of 4.91.

Conceding 55 scores (touchdowns or field goals) from 188 opponent drives, the Steelers were second in opponent scoring efficiency behind the Los Angeles Rams.

Their stingy performance on defense was fuelled by a ferocious pass rush, which led the league in sacks (56) and knockdowns (129) while finishing fourth in hurries (180).

T.J. Watt was the leader of that potent front seven, the 2017 first-round pick missing out on Defensive Player of the Year despite leading the league with 15.0 sacks.

He lost out to Aaron Donald, who had the edge in terms of combined knockdowns and hurries, posting 94.5 to Watt's 83.

The efforts of Watt and Bud Dupree, who had 8.0 sacks before tearing his ACL in Week 12, helped the Steelers finish second with 27 takeaways.

Five of those takeaways were produced by Minkah Fitzpatrick (four interceptions and one fumble recovery) in another stellar campaign for the All-Pro safety.

While this was a second successive year in which the Steelers were a top-five defense in yards per play, elite play is typically tougher for defenses to maintain than offenses.

Performing to that standard for a third straight year will be a substantial challenge, and one that may prove beyond them if they cannot find a replacement for the departed Dupree.

Offseason

While there are elite talents at running back that should be within the Steelers' reach in the first round of the draft, the priorities should be two positions at which they now have holes.

The Steelers may hope Alex Highsmith can step up and fill the void left by Dupree - five of his six quarterback hits as a rookie came after he took over the starting role from the now Tennessee Titans pass rusher - but they will have much better odds of effectively replacing him by adding a draft prospect into the mix.

Of more pressing concern, however, is likely to be the left tackle position. The Steelers did not make an effort to bring back veteran Alejandro Villanueva, a move likely motivated by the depth of this year's tackle class in the draft.

If the Steelers can land a rookie tackle who can step in and can maintain solid protection for Roethlisberger while improving the line's ability to open holes for the backs, he will do more for an offense that badly stuttered down the stretch than any of the top runners in the draft.

Assuming they succeed in doing so, Roethlisberger will have an excellent support system around him once more, with Juju Smith-Schuster surprisingly returning to keep an excellent receiving corps intact.

Yet, after a dismal end to 2020, Roethlisberger's ability to make the most of that support system is firmly in doubt. As such, it would be no surprise to see the Steelers spend a day-two pick on a rookie passer who can provide better competition for a quarterback who is certainly not their long-term future and may not even be a short-term solution.

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