Before we write off the Pittsburgh Steelers just because Ben Roethlisberger is out for the remainder of the season, it’s worth a reminder that they are 0-2 with him as the starter.
The Steelers get their first glimpse of a post-Roethlisberger era Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers (2-0) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. It’s the reality check the Steelers needed, to realize there will be no fourth-quarter comebacks from their franchise quarterback and future Hall of Famer.
The sooner the Steelers embrace second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph as their starter for now and, possibly, the future and realize Roethlisberger isn’t coming to the rescue, the better their chances of salvaging this season.
“That’s one thing we’ve always dealt with Seven is, you always knew he was coming back. You always knew, ‘Hey, control this. He’s going to be back. We just can’t drop the ball,’” said Steelers 11th-year left guard Ramon Foster, gesturing to Rudolph sitting at a nearby locker stall. “Now we’ve come to the reality that we’ve got to roll. This is our guy. This is the guy that’s running the ship right now, that young guy.
“That’s why people aren’t panicky or questioning things because for this year — 2019 — Ben’s not coming back, so we’ve got to roll with what we’ve got.”
Big Ben has been a towering presence in the organization for the past 15 years, to the point that general manager Kevin Colbert called him the team’s “unquestioned leader” and they signed the 37-year-old to a two-year contract extension worth $68 million this offseason.
But if you were expecting doom and gloom from the Steelers this week, you’d be surprised. Now that they have a definitive answer and know Roethlisberger isn’t returning, the Steelers had no choice but to turn the page.
“That chapter is done for this year,” Foster said. “When you’re 0-2, you don’t get the chance to think about Ben being out for the year. You’re thinking about the opportunity Mason has to get a win. If we were 2-0 and Ben was lost, people would be like, ‘Our season’s over.’ Right now, it’s just, ‘Get a win and we control our season.’”
The Steelers need to accept the possibility that Roethlisberger, whose elbow injury on his throwing arm will require surgery, has taken his last snap for the Steelers. Even if he returns instead of retires, Roethlisberger will be 38 next year. This is the first sign that Big Ben is running out of time.
Even so, some Steelers seem to be in denial.
“It can’t feel like a new era until (Ben) walks away,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler this week. “Until then, this city is Big Ben. It’s Roethlisberger’s team. I know Mason is going in there and he has to take the team in his hands right now, but overall you can never say it’s not Ben’s team until he’s retired.”
True, but the Steelers can’t play that waiting game.
They were built around Roethlisberger for the past decade, as he was surrounded by All-Pros in running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown and protected by three Pro Bowl offensive linemen. It didn’t deliver a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Over Roethlisberger’s past 21 starts, including the AFC divisional playoff loss to Jacksonville in January 2018, the Steelers are about as average as can be. They were 10-10-1, despite his averaging 307.4 passing yards and throwing 43 touchdowns to 19 interceptions over that span.
The Steelers are asking a lot of Rudolph, a 2018 third-round pick, to win on the road in his first career start in the NFL. But they know much more about Rudolph’s ability than the 49ers do, as his only game tapes to study are from the preseason and the second half against the Seattle Seahawks.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a difference when you lose someone like Big Ben,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Just the way he plays is unique to everyone. Ben has a style that you only see with Ben that’s made him one of the best quarterbacks of our generation.
“You know it’s going to be somewhat different but we still don’t know how, so we’ve got to prepare for everything and be ready and see how it’s different in the game. We know it’s going to be a little bit different, but you don’t just run an entire new offense because you change one guy.”
Yes, changing the one guy on the Steelers who has won the Super Bowl — make that the only guy, and twice — is a little bit different. But the Steelers need to make changes. They need to be more balanced on offense. They need to be better, period, on defense. They need to stop looking for a savior to rescue them and start to play smart, sound football that doesn’t require last-minute heroics.
That begins with Mike Tomlin, who has never had a losing season but always had Roethlisberger for at least a dozen games. Tomlin can quiet his critics by leading the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Mostly, it depends on a defense that features 10 former first-round picks, including newly acquired safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers have invested in both proven veterans and a talented young core to build around.
“That’s where we’re heading,” said rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush, the No. 10 overall pick this past spring. “It will turn into a winning culture. That’s the plan. We’re going to get back to winning championships around here.”
The Steelers have to start by simply winning — without Big Ben.